Tommy Dorsey was a self-professed speed-freak drag queen who possessed none of his namesake's musical talent. A lip-sync performance pioneer in the early '50s, he shook down sex-starved loggers in bleak Alaskan dives, played B-girl in Chicago mafia fronts, and peddled dope and his own ass in San Francisco's Haight.
Then he became a holy man.
A modern-day Magdalen, this American Saint Genet ended life as a Zen abbot, the highest honor a Western Buddhist can achieve. But it was for his work in the early years of AIDS (which eventually claimed him) that Tommy "Issan" Dorsey found wider fame. At a time when a frightened society cruelly turned its back on the sick and dying, Dorsey combed the streets of San Francisco, collecting discarded souls to shelter in a hospice he helped found.
Jonathan Walters, artistic director for Portland theater company Hand 2 Mouth, discovered Dorsey after speaking with his friend Jack Gibson, who had co-written a screenplay about the abbot with Andrew Eatman and film director Gus Van Sant.
"Van Sant is very interested in this story," Walters says, "but he's never found backing for the project." The saga also intrigued Walters, who began to think of Dorsey's life as a piece of theater. "The creative manner in which the details of his life were woven in a surreal, almost hallucinatory way, alternating from low comedy to visionary beauty, was enthralling," says Walters. "It shouts for the stage."
While travelling and working in Eastern Europe, Walters began to construct the idea of a physical and tech-based version of Dorsey's transcendent journey from whoredom to holiness. Back in Portland, he contacted Abbot Kyogen at the Dharma Rain Zen Center, who embraced the project. Kyogen knew Dorsey and was able to give Walters a list of people to contact, including famed poet and ex-Reedie Philip Whalen, who has been in correspondence with Walters about the project.
With the skeleton of the story complete, Walters joined forces with found-soundscape artists Michael Northam and Seth Nehil, video artist Michael Mateyko and choreographer Mark Hayes to add flesh to its bones. Like Hand 2 Mouth, these artists have all worked in Europe and share a common interest in expanding the boundaries of theater. Walters likens this collaboration of dance, drama, music, film and set design to the type of work coming out of such companies as Japan's dumb type, as well as groups in Poland and Romania with whom Walters has studied and performed. "I hope we're pushing the medium," he says.
By all accounts, Issan Dorsey had a charismatic presence both on tatty drag stages and in meditation halls (where he referred to himself as a "posture queen"). To play Dorsey, Walters has cast Marc Weaver, who won a Drammy Award for his imposing transsexual Inez in Imago's No Exit. "I feel lucky to have found him," Walters says. "He's amazing to watch." The rest of the ensemble includes Micah Sunshower Klatt, Faith Helma, Aryn Ballard and Ina Strauss, who was one of the few saving graces in Stark Raving's recent Suburban Motel.
The Posture Queen promises to be unlike any saint play you've ever seen. But then, Issan Dorsey wasn't your average saint.
Hand 2 Mouth Theater at the Rose City Ballroom, 700 NE Dekum St., 283-3311. 8:30 pm Thursdays- Saturdays, 4 pm Sundays. Opens Friday, Aug. 10. $8-$10.
Opening night will be a benefit for the Cascade AIDS Project.
For more about Dorsey, read David Schneider's
(Shooting Star Press).