It’s not the best-known crime against gay people in U.S. history, but it claimed the most lives: On June 24, 1973, a fire broke out at the Upstairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar. Thirty-two people, most of them gay men, died as a result, in a scene that news accounts described as a “holocaust” in which victims were “literally cooked.” The fire was believed to be the result of arson, but no one was ever arrested.
Unlike the Stonewall Riots or the assassination of Harvey Milk, the tragedy at the Upstairs does not have a prominent place in the LGBT consciousness today. But some theater artists are trying to use the power of their medium to change that.
Playwright and composer Wayne Self has written Upstairs, a musical play about the fire and its victims, that he hopes to stage in New Orleans in June for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. “Even though I grew up in Louisiana and I’m gay, I had never heard about this fire until I was an adult and living in California,” he says. Thinking about the victims, he says, “I decided that their stories needed to be told.”
He has a Kickstarter campaign, continuing through Sunday, to raise funds for the production, and he and director Zach McCallum have assembled a cast to give smaller-scale workshop performances in California this week: tonight in San Mateo, Wednesday in Berkeley, and Thursday in San Francisco. Proceeds and feedback from the workshop performances will help shape the final production. After the projected New Orleans date, the creators hope to have a Los Angeles premiere and will see where the show goes from there.
The play has been a work in progress for about four years, says Self, who has consulted numerous sources on the fire, including research by Louisiana-based scholar Clayton Delery for his forthcoming book Nineteen Minutes of Hell. There were about 35 survivors of the fire, Self notes, including several who were led to safety by bartender Buddy Rasmussen, although some of those he ushered out went back in to try to save others. Many of the survivors, he adds, were later casualties of AIDS, so much research has to depend on secondary sources.
At left: Cast members in rehearsal.
The research has yielded shocking revelations about the probable perpetrator. “Everything I’ve read would most likely indicate that the culprit was a patron of the bar who had rage issues or was acting on some internalized homophobia,” Self says.
McCallum adds that he hopes the play will drive home the message “that homophobia is our enemy whether it comes from within or without.” He also hopes it will show audiences “what the environment was like for queer people in 1973 and how far we’ve come.”
And both hope the show will help audiences know the victims as individuals. “They lived and they loved,” says Self, “and they argued and they sang.” With his play, he intends to give them a voice again.