Remembering the Worst Mass Killing of LGBT People in U.S. History

Forty years ago, dozens of people were trapped inside a New Orleans gay bar as it burned down. Now a new book, two films, an art installation, and a musical revisit the tragedy.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

November 15 2013 3:07 PM ET UPDATED: June 05 2014 6:55 PM ET


THE REVOLUTION THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

Self, the man behind the musical, Upstairs, first learned about the tragedy while working as a music director for the Metropolitan Community Church.

“I was reading MCC founder Troy Perry’s book Don’t Be Afraid Anymore,” Self recalls. “His book is pretty critical of the community’s response — not just the government, but also the gay community. When you’re from a place like Louisiana, your first instinct is to defend it against critics. So my first reaction was disbelief, not that the fire had happened, but that the community had reacted the way it did, and that I had never heard about it. So I started to read and to research. It wasn’t until later that I started to feel a real sadness and a real drive to create something expressive around this tragedy.”

Robert Camina, whose first film was the award-winning Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, felt that way too, so he raised money for Upstairs Inferno with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and began the emotional task of talking to survivors, families of victims, historians, local politicians, and other experts. He got a boost by the fire’s 40th anniversary memorial services, held in the city last June. So did Anderson, who spent six years on his documentary; Delery, whose book is eagerly awaited; and Self, the man behind the musical Upstairs, which was perhaps the most controversial of all the recent related projects.

Telling this story, rather memorializing this story of the worst mass killing of gay people in the U.S., had to be told through theater, says Self, who collaborated with director Zachary McCallum (who directed both the February San Francisco Bay Area workshop and the New Orleans premiere in June).

At right: Scenes from the musical tragedy Upstairs, which opened to rave reviews, even though many in New Orleans had concerns about the tragedy being turned into musical theater.

“Theater has a separate function that has to do with activism, recreation, and catharsis,” he says. “Theater incarnates. It brings ideas into a very present, fleshy, intimate reality, without the distance of film or the analysis of history. For that reason, this project, premiering as it did on the 40th anniversary of the fire, became equal parts theater, community activism, and memorial. Some people said they felt like they were watching history. Others said they felt like they could finally say goodbye. We had the children of victims there. The friends of victims. We had survivors there, in that small venue, watching us re-create the night of the fire. It was humbling and frightening and deeply rewarding. And it’s something only theater can do.”

Many locals were angry to hear of Self’s musical, many expecting some exploitive light theater piece like The Sound of Music. Once they saw the almost-operatic musical tragedy he created, people changed their minds.

“People contacted me with blunt questions about why I want to bring this old tragedy up at all," he says. "In the face of such a stunning, graphic, and potentially politically outrageous loss of life, I think there is an understandable impulse to forget it and move along. To people with this impulse, any art or scholarship around the fire is seen as exploitative or morbid or insensitive. One longtime member of the gay community in New Orleans swore he’d be there opening night and would stand up and stop the show as soon as it was disrespectful. I’m told he left in tears at the end.”

Perhaps that’s because “Upstairs isn’t like most musical theater; it’s a requiem with dialogue. It’s a passion play set to music, and the music is organic to the setting.” After all, he says, New Orleans is one of the most musical cities in the world, and the UpStairs Lounge was a cabaret bar — plus one of the victims was a classical pianist who had been featured on national television and another was a local jazz pianist.

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