OUT of Site Sylvester Series Keeping it Real
By Jenny Jedeikin
It’s 1972 and I’m nine years old sitting under the shade of eucalyptus trees in Golden Gate Park, witnessing my first wedding. Crouched next to a bed of wildflowers in the Shakespeare Garden, I look up at the two grooms towering over me. Sylvester, a gay black drag queen and soon-to-be disco pop star stands beside his male counterpart, both donning long flowing white gowns with white flower crowns in their hair.
Sylvester James Jr. 1947-1988
Although I was just a child, Sylvester’s wedding left me with a lasting and radical impression. In an era when few people came out in public, Sylvester had given himself permission to express himself as the fabulous life-affirming gender fluid person he was and live exactly as he chose. He was a revolutionary.
“Sylvester created the blueprint for so many non-binary and trans people and queer people of color to be themselves in a moment when it was not easy to do so, especially if you were a person of color, and non-binary or transgender in that era,” says Seth Eisen. Eisen is a visual and performance artist and artistic director of Eye Zen Presents which is celebrating Sylvester’s legacy this summer in a new production, "Sylvester, The Mighty Real", the fifth in a series of walking tour-performances conceived of by Eisen, to elevate and preserve the hidden queer history of San Francisco. Audience members are given headsets and walk from location to location to experience events in the settings where they took place.
Shows are from July 1 to September 2, with previews from June 16.
"The Mighty Real" is set in the 1970s and 1980s in the Haight, where Sylvester (who arrived in 1970) lived and performed with the psychedelic drag troupe the Cockettes, before rising to fame with the 1978 disco hit, “You Make me Feel Mighty Real.”
“The Haight has such a huge queer history, but it isn’t visible,” says Eisen, who is passionate about bringing the story to wider audiences at a pivotal moment, when so many oppressive laws — 400 and counting! — are being enacted against drag queens and transgender people across the country.
Eisen assembled a group of creatives to take the reins in telling Sylvester’s story. The original script was written by Marvin K. White, a celebrated poet, and Minister of Celebration at Glide Memorial Church, where the Cockettes originally performed their avant-garde theater.
Lambert Moss. Photo by Chris Steele
The lead is portrayed by Lambert Moss, a singer with a history of performing as a drag queen. “Moss grew up listening to all of that music because he had a queer aunt who played Sylvester on rotation constantly. So, by the time he was 10, he knew every album cover to cover.” In the role of director, Eisen hired Michael French who hails from London. Michael is director of an artist fellowship program at the Afro Urban Society and has a deep background in experimental touring theater and telling authentic stories from historically oppressed communities.
Eisen, a self-described archive geek, brought his decades-long research on Sylvester to the project. Most enthralling for Eisen were the moments he spent in the GLBT Historical Society researching Sylvester’s archives. “Touching these objects and seeing Sylvester's clothing, there's a feeling of the holy grail,” shared Eisen. “We’re not talking about Community Thrift here. We're talking about Pat Campano, one of the greatest costumers of the stars, who hand stitched each sequin on those outfits.”
Tragically Sylvester died from complications from AIDS in 1988 at age 41. But at every step he stayed true to himself. “Even when he was becoming famous,” says Eisen, “when he got his amazing record deal with Harvey Fuqua who was working with Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, Sylvester continued to push back against the record producers who urged him to wear a suit, telling him he’d never sell records.”
In the late 1980s when he was struggling with AIDS, Sylvester famously asked to be escorted in a wheelchair in the Castro Gay Freedom Day Parade. “He wanted people to see what it looked like to have AIDS,” says Eisner. “Sylvester was saying, ‘I am someone who had everything. I put myself out in the world, and this is who I am now and I'm dying, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.’ It’s a beautiful and brave story on so many levels.”
On my end, 28 years after attending Sylvester’s groundbreaking same sex wedding, I left my marriage to a man and came out. Thanks to rebels like Sylvester, there was nothing revolutionary about it.
→ July 1 – Sept. 2. Previews from June 16. Tickets: eyezen.org
Main image artwork by Corryn Newlan