With queer narratives so often reclaiming what was lost, stolen or buried, there is a certain strength to be had in embracing what might otherwise be seen as a cliché, argues gender-transcendent cabaret star Mama Alto.
It’s why Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz torch song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is one of the key moments in Mama Alto’s new show Queerly Beloved. Accompanied on piano by the inimitable Daniel Brace, it bowed at Adelaide’s 21st Feast Festival late last year, before hitting Melbourne’s Midsumma this week. After that it's onto the 40th anniversary Mardi Gras.
“Sometimes I feel that clichés are clichés for a reason, because they hold a kind of power,” she says. “They act as an interactive cultural document to which each generation adds layers of meaning and context. It means something to people because it is so familiar, but then filtered through these different lenses, they let their guard down and… bathe in the song with an open heart, and it’s able to reach them on an emotional but also intellectual level.”
As a non-binary, trans femme person of colour, uncovering new angles to old classics is all part of Mama Alto’s act, with Queerly Beloved encouraging audience engagement while drawing on the rich history of queer existence.
That includes winding back the track "I Honestly Love You" to before Olivia Newton-John. Originally sung and co-written by Peter Allen, Mama Alto reclaims The Boy from Oz as a pansexual icon, teasing out the true meaning behind the then-controversial line, “if we both were both born in another place and time, this moment might be ending in a kiss.”
"This isn’t the safe, schmaltzy, sweet heterosexual young love song that it was given to me as by a dominant society,” Mama Alto notes. “It’s great to talk about Peter because he is often remembered, even within the queer community in a kind of lateral violence, as a gay icon, rather than bisexual or pansexual, which is what he identified as. The history of bi-erasure is huge in our communities.”
Queerly Beloved is here to draw out the truth between the lines, not rub it out. Bringing to mind the wedding phrase, “we are gathered here today…” the show was in its early stages of development when the proposed plebiscite, soon-to-be postal survey, reared its ugly head again.
“It naturally became, in part, a response to the debate surrounding the survey, which became a mechanism to attack and destroy the lives of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTIQA+ community,” Mama Alto seethes.
Queer resilience, and the push back against assault, is at the heart of the show. “One of the possible solutions is about building community and using performance and art to change society and that can happen, from my point of view, in two ways,” Alto says. “You can empower and affirm someone whose identity comes from a marginal space, or you can use the power of performance art to confront and change someone’s preconceived notions and prejudices.”
Mama Alto was called upon to join prolific New York queer superstar Taylor Mac’s army of dandy minions in the revelatory A 24-Decade History of Popular Music during last year’s Melbourne Festival, and was enriched by their similar practice.
“When I heard what it was about, and this idea of queering as a verb, and of the act of performance as a ritualistic way to remind and unbury and re-centre marginalised experiences, I thought this is something I have always been doing.”
This revelatory experience was followed by with a trip to Prato in Italy to co-present at a Monash University conference on art as archive, and archiving as art, with her “formidable and highly regarded,” academic mother Dr Sue McKemmish. “We were presenting on the theme of cabaret as a living archive, with its ability to hold and reconcile contradictory and complex histories.”
Coming back via London, Mama Alto’s research for Queerly Beloved also took in the British Museum. “As much as they are a colonial imperial hangover institution, and there are huge problems with that, I was very intrigued to see that they had recently created the queer history trail.”
Marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, the tour, and its accompanying book A Little Gay History, showcases 10,000 years of artifactual evidence of queer existence, from the Aztecs to the ancient Sumerians.
Mama Alto was fascinated by depictions of gender non-conforming divinity. “Babylonian artefacts document gender diversity and the cult of the Queen of the Night, a goddess who had the power to change people who were assigned male at birth into women. The Aztecs had a multi-gendered divinity of agency and empowerment, but when the colonisers arrived from Europe they recast her to the natives as a goddess of vice and sin.”
An Egyptian tomb contained two men buried as they would a husband and wife. “Egyptologists have always claimed they were twin brothers up until very recently, when they have admitted it was probably a same sex partnership.”
All of these many strands and much more, including Indigenous Australia’s Brotherboys and Sistergirls, are woven into Queerly Beloved. “There are all kinds of entities that we have to acknowledge if we want to talk about LGBTIQA+. They are equally as part of the rainbow family as anyone else.
“It’s a crystallised response to all of those ideas, to put queerness front and centre. To empower, to heal, to reconnect, to acknowledge the traumas but also acknowledge that we have always been here, since the dawn of humanity, and that that suggests we always will be.”
Mama Alto welcomes anyone living in an electorate that voted No in the marriage equality postal survey to see the show for free. The same applies to any surviving members of the 78ers, the original Mardi Gras protesters.