Sag mir wo die Blumen sind: “Vienna to Weimar” and Songs of Resistance

As my semester ramps up and my workload is beset by ever more fascinating layers of tedious yet exciting social scientific labours, I realised that I might do well to share with you some older essays of mine; reduce, reuse, recycle, I grew up with Captain Planet, baby. What follows here is a review of a cabaret show that I wrote for my German Thought & Culture class back in October 2012. I loved the show and I wanted to share my reflections on it with you all, partially since my last essay on Nuclear Unicorn broached the subject of ‘bridge building’ across identities and experiences. This fits with that rather serendipitously  I think. I hope you enjoy, there may be more of these to come; I like to write beyond discretely trans issues and German history is actually a bit of a hobby of mine.

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Karen Kohler (l) and K.T. Sullivan, courtesy of Ms. Kohler's website. (http://www.karenkohler.com)

Karen Kohler (l) and K.T. Sullivan, courtesy of Ms. Kohler’s website. (http://www.karenkohler.com)

An intimate theatre arrayed much like a speakeasy, a crowd of chatter, wooden colonnades framing a petite proscenium—all washed down with aromatic whiskey; it was the carefree spirit of Weimar as it was. If I had to summarise what I enjoyed most about K.T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler’s Vienna to Weimar cabaret, it was that both women rhapsodised about the human spirit in a way that both spoke to the distinctions of a bygone age, while resonating deeply thousands of miles and scores of years away.

The performance granted a coruscating voice to reality that puts the lie to any notion of traditionalist “good ol’ days.” These were songs about women in full crimson bloom, songs about women in three dimensions: lesbian women, women with their fists thrust athwart chauvinism, women traipsing across lines of class, gender, and sexuality—the songs tell alternating tales of politically sexual confidence with an elegantly militant posture that still wears glamorously in 2012. They capture the currents of a time in Germany where all was in furious chaos and anything seemed possible. Kohler, with a stunning voice, tremendous range, and commanding style in her tuxedo and top hat, seemed herself to be an embodiment of the times, evoking Marlene Dietrich. K.T. Sullivan’s operatic range was equally magnificent—taking us from Viennese waltzes that teased class boundaries and evoked old fairy tales, to brassy and sensual cabaret at its highest peak.

The performance was a beautiful handkerchief flung in the face of stereotypes. Even as the dark clouds of fascism gathered over central Europe, here were feminists and lesbians daring to draw the temper of their foes, daring to sing against patriarchy with the jaunty chorus of “raus mit der Männer aus dem Reichstag!” It is well worth remembering that some of these songs are courageous even today. Their boldness and the triumph of the lived womanhood that sired them become all the more impressive in that reckoning. With that in mind, the weight of a secret but potent history was expertly borne by Sullivan and Kohler, and they more than did it justice.

The show was a symphonic concatenation of a very crimson Germany. On stage Sullivan and Kohler beautifully fanned the flames of gendered rebellion and brought striking images of lesbian love forth through English and German lyrics. The artists themselves provided beautiful, and often funny context in between their sets, granting provenance to the artefacts of their lyrics, reminding us of the origins of such powerful songs as Lila Leid—“Purple Song”, an anthem to the repressed queer folk of Germany. They had the air of glamorous historians in those moments, and their brief but informative interludes curated the production beautifully.

The metaphor of curation is an apt one, for these two women were indeed charged with the expert handling and display of timeless relics. Everything in the performance evoked its period. The subtle surprise of each performer entering from behind the audience, rather than from behind the curtain, the siren-like crooning as they walked among the audience members, drawing them into the music—it all amounted to a brilliantly immersive performance, and allowed me to breath the air of those delectably seedy halls of social rebellion where women would throw off thousands of years worth of chains for one blissful night.

The artefacts themselves were songs that, as previously mentioned, revealed a truth about that age. A hidden truth that tells the stories of those often left out of history textbooks which recount only wheelbarrows full of valueless Marks, the Shakespearian collapse of President Hindenburg, and the storm clouds of the Nazism to come—as if the Weimar Republic were merely the bankrupt semicolon between the Great War and Adolf Hitler. Sullivan and Kohler’s beautiful elegy for the real Weimar, as real women saw it, was inspired—a gay revue both funny and sad, often all at once, that eagerly seized on the bright sparks of freedom that Weimar seemed to anemically offer.

That freedom is best embodied by a song that still strikes a beautifully radical note today, about a masculine and feminine woman constantly changing and upending their ‘roles’—emerging from the happy chaos is a “hermaphrodite” baby that seems to contain the hope of a brighter future where sex/gender distinction is no longer so grimly tenacious and all-consuming. The flying sparks here illuminate not only the lesbian possibilities of the era, but even transgender and intersex ones. The play, here, truly contains impressive multitudes.

But of course, from these Olympian heights of queer-utopian dreams we must descend from the Roaring Twenties into the era of the Depression. It is a testament to Weimar cabaret that it makes you laugh even when it is at its saddest. One song dreamt a fairy tale of fair and apolitical courts that presided over a fair and just republic, amongst other lovely dreams that pined for the Weimar that could have been. One woman sung her dreams, the other sing-songingly rejoined her as a liar; it was a beautiful back-and-forth teetering between funny, inspiring, and sorrowful. As Kohler and Sullivan stood hand in hand, ramrod straight and solemnly singing that “All conflict will cease and we shall all live in peace” I nearly wept; their acting was as pitch perfect as their voices, their faces captured the spirit of the Weimar Republic’s twilight. They stared somewhere far beyond the audience; one could easily envision these two singers as courageous German women living in the underground of the 20s, seeing the gathering terror in the distance and facing it unerringly.

The metaphors about ‘bottling lightning’ come to mind here. What Kohler and Sullivan managed was to somehow, in a brief and economical space, encapsulate an era and its diversity. At once didactic and intoxicating, it was a performance that allowed one to forget where she sat for a brief moment. Each quivering of my note-taking pen made me worry I was missing something on stage, each sip of Bourbon perfectly complimented the smoky and sensual gala unfolding on (and off) stage.

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There is much more that one could say, for like the art of Hannah Höch this revue seemed to explode in every direction. On final reflection, however, the most interesting direction for me was the exploration of womanhood. Opera reviewers often imbue singers’ voices with the character of the circumnavigator and say that their voices survey uncharted lands. In that vein, Kohler and Sullivan’s sojourn explored the different fiefdoms of womanhood—both through their eyes and men’s eyes, taking the words of male songwriters and bathing them in a new interpretation at once searchingly sensual and political.

Whatever the intentions of the original songwriters, Kohler and Sullivan gave each piece a feminist resonance. When Sullivan sung “ich bin ein Vamp!” you wanted to leap up and join her. When their much remarked upon performance of “Atilla the Hun” was sung, you felt a swelling of sisterly pride for their proud, confident, demanding sexuality (and did not dwell on mourning the lost virility of that “cute little brute”). And finally, Hollaender’s “Chuck All the Men,” brought me to the home that this queer trans woman’s heart never left—I felt as if I could conquer the world in that moment. This very song was a mantra that armoured me with a measure of Kohler and Sullivan’s confidence after a man harassed me in Central Park not long after the show.

Those songs were a bridge between 1920s Germany and my Bronx-born queerness; something I did not quite expect going into the show, and I’m tremendously glad I walked away with it.

I think I will take this waltz.

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