Clothes make the man, so the saying goes. In James Fagan Tait’s new play, The Explanation (now playing at the Cultch until April 29th) a secret little black miniskirt is enough to make, remake, and utterly transform the lives of not one man, but two.
During the week, John (Kevin MacDonald) works in Burnaby as a mental health counsellor. But on Saturday mornings, he slips into his little black miniskirt, applies a modest sheen of lipstick, dons thick glasses and a black wig, and catches transit to the central library in downtown Vancouver. “I’m a man. I’m straight. I just like to dress this way.” John explains, starting into his opening monologue.
He’s not the only dude insisting he’s straight. While browsing in the library, he bumps into Dick (Evan Frayne), who mistakes a mini-skirted John for a woman, or at least he claims to. Dick is also straight; He claims that too and he’s got the sort of lumbering gracelessness that makes it seem plausible, even likely. But he asks John out for coffee. After some strained banter, the two go to Davie Street and dance like two guys who really, really need a release. And they do it again the next Saturday, and the next.
Being straight, things are a little awkward. What should they do when a slow song comes on? Both actors portray a palpable awkwardness with each other, especially with the other’s body. Pit-hair, belly-fat, and deodorant are discussed.
The black miniskirt unlocks a new space for the two, a space to shed workaday personalities, loosen up straight-white-guy joints and dance with abandon. This creates a different sort of body awareness. In cross-dress, John speaks less about a thrill of transgression, than about discovering a new relationship with his legs, ass, and face. Through this, he becomes a spelunker of his own self, equipped with “idiot glasses”.
The skirt allows John to feel “like a woman” or like he “imagines a woman to feel” and this allows him to reimagine himself. This abuts the idea of embodied cognition: the theory that our minds emerge from “brains, bodies, and bodily experiences”. Forget brains in a vat; think sweaty bodies on a Davie Street dance floor. As George Lakoff, a leading thinker in this space, puts it, “Because our conceptual systems grow out of our bodies, meaning is grounded in and through our bodies.”
As a play concerned with bodies and sexuality, The Explanation runs into some identity politics and its treatment is likely to create some debate. The two men keep claiming to be straight even when things get physical. What are we to make of this? Are they simply clinging to their privilege as straight white dudes? Are they trying to convince themselves that they still have control over the intimacy that is growing between them— that they could just as easily skip their Saturday liaisons, pack in the cross-dressing, and go back to being straight, autonomous men? “Whatever” as John likes to say, which could mean 1) that in this day-and-age it doesn’t matter, 2) that we’re all on a spectrum, and/or 3) that sexuality doesn’t fit into boxes with neat labels. Maybe it’s all circumstance. Maybe it’s all about who you share those big, defining moments with. That might explain intimacy, sure, but sex? The Explanation poses some provocative questions, but there is still some explaining to do.
Gay or straight, the two men are vulnerable (especially Dick, who lives in an apartment that smells of loneliness). The play had the audience caring about the characters, especially in their tenderness towards each other. They’re always checking in: “Are you ok? Is this ok?”
You might not find your joie de vivre in cross-dressing (and if you do “whatever”). But most of us will be able to relate to the thrill of having a juicy secret, something you can hold onto during long meetings at work: no one here knows this about me. The Explanation is an unpretentious and intimate journey of two men rediscovering themselves with the help of some tights, a wig, and a miniskirt. Try this play on, you might find that it fits.