Though the trope of death and unhappiness in lesbian stories pervades theatre to this day, The Five Lesbian Brothers are anything but morose. In fact, during a May 31 virtual roundtable with Playbill, Tony winner Lisa Kron, Moe Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, and Peg Healey, who are the five brothers, are positively gleeful to be reunited.
(Watch the full video interview above.)
Laughing as they adjust to the world of Zoom, the quintet discuss the upcoming live stream reading of Brave Smiles...Another Lesbian Tragedy, which airs June 22 at 7 PM ET at Playbill.com/PridePlays as part of the Pride Plays Festival, in a presentation directed by Leigh Silverman.
The play—a satire of tragic lesbian stories—follows five orphan girls over five decades, taking them from the Tilue-Pussenheimer Academy to their inevitable dark conclusion.
“Brave Smiles was the second play that we wrote,” says Kron, who won a Tony for her work as the book writer and lyricist for Fun Home. “We had made a play together called Voyage to Lesbos, and nearly killed each other; but Brave Smiles was so fun to make.”
Back in 1992, when the play was first written, the world of lesbian narratives was limited in scope, if present at all. “I remember there was a kiss on Law & Order and everything stopped in the Lower East Side because all of the lesbians wanted to watch the kiss,” says Healey.
Looking into the shortage of lesbian narratives and the histories of ones that existed, The Five Lesbian Brothers threw themselves into research, exploring works like Mädchen in Uniform, The Children’s Hour, The Well of Loneliness, and Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.
The connective thread? “In every single narrative, the lesbian has to die,” says Kron.
“Also, that lesbians are not funny,” says Davy, because they’re too busy getting their story across. “I remember when we started, I was like, ‘Is this too simple?’ Every time it looks like they’re going to make it—be able to have a fruitful life and be in love and happy and accepted—it falls apart.”
And it turns out, that’s exactly what the play needed to be. First developed at Wow Café Theatre in NYC’s East Village, the Brothers performed the show in four NYC productions and toured it for years. At this point, the play is in all five of the Brothers' DNA.
The work and legacy they’ve left brings them immense pride, says Angelos. “There’s a scene in the play where they take a blood oath, the five schoolgirls, and every time I do that play I get verklempt because that’s how I feel about these gals,” says Dibbell.
“I feel like everything in my theatre career and my path to becoming an artist comes from Wow and the women who were there,” says Kron. “And that place was invisible to the rest of the world for a long time. Those artists who inspired us still have not gotten their due. So to be in Pride Plays is such a moving thing, and to be included as representatives of that world is really meaningful.”
Of course, performing Brave Smiles on StreamYard isn’t without its challenges. “It’s hard on the old ladies,” jokes Kron.
“It’s a mirror, so it’s backwards on screen,” says Davy. “I got notes and notes on my notes, like, ‘Don’t slap her that way, she’s over there!’”
Madcap and slapdash humor is something The Five Lesbian Brothers make sure are a part of the work, but it’s not the only thing. “One thing in our approach was that even though we were pretty campy and satirists, there was always some kind of line that all five of us seemed to know,” says Dibbell.
As Kron explains, the satire emanates from the show’s monologues and the emotion comes from the centrality of a lesbian perspective. The lesbianism already exists in the world of Brave Smiles; no one is coming out and discovering their sexuality. In the play, for example, headmistress Frau Von Pussenheimer espouses rage and grief about her sexual frustration while the student’s favorite teacher, Miss Phillips, embraces the female form and sexuality.
“When I saw it [at Pride Plays last year], I was like, ‘Oh this still has so much currency,” says Kron. “I was like ‘This play is as fresh as a daisy.’ Sexism isn’t over. Lesbian invisibility isn’t quite as total as it was, but it’s not like the patriarchy has been dismantled.”
“We were embarrassed because we were laughing so hard,” admits Davy of revisiting the work.
“We were like, ‘Who wrote this? It’s hilarious!’” adds Kron.
Even separated by thousands of miles, these women are hilarious, even when they’re not performing. “I do think one of the hardest parts of the performance is just not laughing because it really is the foundation of our work,” says Healey. “We love to harp on a stupid joke and make each other laugh.”
Even the name—The Five Lesbian Brothers—is a joke in itself. “One of our hallmarks is gender-play, with drag back and forth,” says Dibbell. “Calling ourselves Brothers with the irony and juxtaposition made sense.” The name was cemented when Dibbell drew a cartoon of the fivesome under which she wrote "The Five Lesbian Brothers."
Healey loved the name The Five Lesbian Brothers because it made people squirm, like the receptionist at Simon & Schuster who whispered “lesbian” over the phone to announce their arrival in the lobby, or the gay boy at Disneyland who had to ask his manager if he could put their name on a Mickey ears hat (sadly, he couldn't).
Nowadays, people aren’t so afraid to say the word “lesbian”—although it still doesn’t seem to the playwrights that LGBTQ+ folks are interested in labeling themselves as such.
“We’ve been talking about how a lot of new queer people, women, reject the word lesbian,” says Dibbell. “I think it’s still because of societal structure, ‘lesbian’ on the tongue sounds like some kind of disease, or condition.”
“Like a tasty treat!” interjects Angelos. “Can Lesbian On the Tongue be the title of our next play?” adds Healey.
“That’s how the soup is made,” says Kron, referring to their creative process. “That’s how it happens.”
Whether or not Lesbian on the Tongue becomes their next big hit, it’s a sure thing that whatever this quintet do next, it will be hilarious, meaningful, and a treat.
Brave Smiles...Another Lesbian Tragedy is one of four mainstage presentations of the 2020 Pride Plays Festival from producers Doug Nevin and Michael Urie, festival director Nick Mayo, and associate director Nic Cory. The other free broadcasts on Playbill include The Men From the Boys by Mart Crowley June 26 and Masculinity Max by MJ Kaufman June 27. Donja R. Love's one in two live streamed June 12. The festival also includes 11 other plays in development that will receive private readings throughout the month of June. The Playbill Pride Spectacular Concert will air June 28, free on Playbill.
Want to support LBGTQ+ communities during Pride Month? Please consider making a donation at broadwaycares.org/prideplays2020.