I discovered a new me through my one-man show, FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva. For Diana Ross, the film The Wiz accompanied a significant change in her life. She left Motown and her husband, moved to New York with her kids, and started a new life. The moment I put that dress on in June of 1994, I too was Dorothy, about to experience a new gust of life. The only difference was that my slippers were purple rhinestone.
When Darryl showed me his first draft of FREEda Slave, I was curious and perplexed. “What am I doing?” I thought. “How can this straight boy write about the gay lifestyle, something he’s never lived?” I was beginning to feel doubtful. The script lacked soul, and it didn’t give any reason for an audience to care about a drag queen. I was going to step out on a stage by myself to play that character, and would be responsible for making the audience feel something. I wondered, “Will the words that come out of my mouth sound true?” I knew I looked good in drag, but would people identify with FREEda Slave?
The funny thing is that, as a kid growing up, I was scared to death of drag queens. When I was about ten, my mother, brother, sister, and I were strolling in a Portsmouth mall when we saw a drag queen. My mother grabbed our faces and told us to look away, as if looking at the man in a dress would turn us to stone. Years after I came out of the closet, I continued to avoid drag queens. If I saw a drag queen in a gay club, I quickly looked away to avoid eye contact. Part of me thought it was rude to stare and look for flaws. But I also feared what a drag queen might say or do, as I’d heard that many were vicious, loud, and violent. I had been told that drag queens were always on the offensive, looking for an audience to watch them belittle the shy and the innocent. In the gay niteclubs, rumors spread of their rough language and their switchblades, intended to cut you down to size. I learned quickly, “Don’t mess with Miss Rhoda or Miss Pebbles. ‘Cause you know them girls keep a razor blade between their fake tits, and they have no problem using it!”
I told some friends about my concerns regarding Darryl’s draft of FREEda Slave, and one of them introduced us to Shirley Louise, a wonderful, motherly, transsexual. She was “passable,” which means she could pass for a woman in broad daylight. She did not perform in clubs or stand on street corners, turning tricks. Shirley had a real job -- she was a nurse who always acted like a lady, and she was respected at all the clubs. She talked about growing up wearing girls’ clothes, and explained the difference between a drag performer and a transsexual. She gave me a mini-history about her role as a drag mother, explaining that she acted as a role model for young, up and coming queens. I didn’t have a clue about drag, and I wanted to learn to think like a drag queen. My thirst for more education inspired me to start a new and very different extra credit project.
“Convicts Looking for Pen Pals” was the ad I saw in the Baltimore Gay Paper. I responded by sending pictures of me from To Wong Foo to a number of inmates. I always started my correspondence by telling them that I was a man dressed as a woman. The response was an outpouring of romantic letters, such as this one:
Dear FREEda, my queen:
How's life treating you? I truly hope you're in a divine mood and enjoying the fruits of life and all the pleasurable moments a free society has to offer.
If only I could see your smile, I would move these tears of clouds; if only I could hear your voice, you would always be my ultimate choice; if only I could touch your hand, this pain I feel would shatter sand; if only I could kiss your tender lips, this heart of mine would cause an eclipse; if only I could hold you tight, this loneliness would end its plight; if only I could be with you, if only my dreams could come true, if only....
The portrait that you sent me of you reclining in bed is very lovely. I still have seventeen empty slots in my photo book and I would like to fill them with sexy portraits of you in different positions and sexy colored outfits. So I shall say please, for now. Don't panic, don't wake, dream on, I'm yours.
Rasheed Akbar Muhammad
Florida State Correctional Facility
The letters were rather poetic, and some became quite intense. The inmates would send me pictures of themselves, and I would send them even more pictures of me in drag. Eventually, I ordered sexy lingerie from Frederick’s of Hollywood and had more pictures taken of me in erotic attire. After sending off those photos, things got hot -- the letters I received became sexually explicit, and a few of the inmates even asked me for a commitment. Upon reading a few, Darryl suggested we use one of the letters in the play and just change the name of the author in case the guy was released. Then one guy wrote to me and said that he had seen a picture of me in another guy’s cell, so he had stabbed that other inmate. I stopped writing letters after that.
Darryl dropped off another draft of the play, one day as I sat in my African store. This time, it struck a chord with me. By the time I got to the end, I could not stop crying. I knew we had something. He had woven bits and pieces of stories told to us by drag queens into a believable tale about the universal quest for freedom and unconditional love. He had written the story of Alfred, a cross dresser whose alter ego is FREEda. The play starts at the close of one of Alfred’s drag performances, and FREEda enters her dressing room and breaks the fourth wall by talking to the audience. As she undresses, we hear stories of Alfred’s / FREEda’s life growing up. Some of the tales are funny, and some are sad. With the telling of each tale, Alfred removes a bit of his mask, emotionally and physically: the wig comes off, each eyelash is removed, the bra is unhooked, and the girdle un-strapped. Through his sharing, the audience gets to know who Alfred is at his core, who he is as a human being. At one point, Alfred stands there naked, reading a letter that the church sent him about homosexuality and the Bible:
FREEDA / ALFRED: This letter was sent to me after an interview was done on me about the show in one of the local papers. “Sinner, you are going against the principles sent down by God. Your soul is going to burn in hell. A freak of nature sent by Satan. A servant of the Dark Demon, corrupting souls. Repent now and exorcise the evil that dwells within your life. Repent! Repent! Repent! It’s not too late to become a real man. To find a good woman who will turn your life in the direction of truth and righteousness. The choice is yours. For in the Bible it says, ‘If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their blood guiltiness is upon them.’ Leviticus 20:13! I will be praying for your soul....” (Alfred puts down letter, confesses) Yes, I have been with men. That’s no secret. Many men. Some of you may be in this theater. We all have a past. But I am a man. A black man. First and foremost, society will see me as a black man. I was born gay. But what is my real crime? I’m not robbing people on the streets or selling drugs. I’m not a father who misses support payments. I’ve never killed anyone. I pay my bills on time: rent, taxes, car note. Hell, I’m employed. And you say I am not a man. Because of who I choose to love. Because of who I choose to love. The simple act of love.
Darryl’s grandmother came opening night. She loved sitting there in the front row, seeing me naked, and said it was one of her favorite moments. Woven into the play were elements of relationships with my own family members. I told Darryl stories of my father, my best friend, my wife, my brother, and my sister. One story about my mother made it into the script and it is a memory that never leaves me. I was 14-years-old and had just raised enough money from cutting lawns in the neighborhood to buy the album I had been wanting all summer, Love Child, by Diana Ross and the Supremes. I had seen Diana perform the title song on the Ed Sullivan Show, wearing cut-off shorts with Cindy and Mary standing barefoot in the background, humming vocals. After I bought it, I played that song over and over again on my JC Penney phonograph. I would mimic all of Diana’s stage movements and try to reach the high, nasal pitch she created. One day, my mother walked in one me and said, “Don’t no boy supposed to be running ‘round trying to sound like no girl!”
It wasn’t the first or last time my mother would say this to me while I was growing up. In FREEda Slave, Darryl had me say that line as my mother had said it to me as a child. He knew it made me angry. He loved leaving me little inflammatory notes to find on stage, so that he could get a certain emotion out of me at show time.
While performing in drag, the character Alfred loves lip-syncing to Gladys Knight. Darryl suggested I use the music of Gladys Knight because everyone would expect me to use the music of Diana Ross. The Freeda character makes references to Diana Ross throughout the show, but is truly connected to the music of Knight. Gladys’ music works perfectly, and the play is driven by the power and passion of her voice. I ended up becoming a huge Gladys Knight fan because of the show, and began collecting as much of her music as I could.
I met many different people while doing FREEda because they would search me out; married, single, gay, and bi-sexual men began to confide in me about their love of cross-dressing. To further my education, I attended a cross dressers’ support group at the local Baltimore Gay Community Center. To be truthful, I had never been completely comfortable wearing a dress, but the people who found me attractive when I dressed up in women’s clothes swept me away. Moreover, I loved the sexual energy that came with cross-dressing. My new freedom allowed me to experiment and become more sexually open.
One night, I convinced two of my good buddies to dress up in drag and accompany me to a gay bar. Threesomes have always made me feel so “Supreme.” A very sexy guy bought me a drink, and soon we were back at my place with him standing erect and stripped for action. When I started to undress and remove my wig, he shook his head and whispered, “No, please keep it on.” That’s when it hit me -- he wanted the fantasy, not me. That little scene marked the beginning of my love / hate relationship with FREEda. She brought me recognition, some interesting men, and the occasional casting director, but none of them could see beyond her image.
In the last season of Homicide: Life on the Street, Pat Moran asked me to audition in drag for an episode called “Closet Cases.” I had already done background work for Pat, and the last three assignments I had booked through her had all been in drag. Finally, on the “Closet Cases” episode, I landed a speaking role. But it was as a drag queen hooker. I wanted to have a shirt made that said, “I’m not a drag queen -- I just play one on TV.”
Memories of To Wong Foo came rushing back after being cast with a real drag queen in that episode, an actor who would play my character’s street walking partner. We played two ladies of the evening being interviewed by Detective Frank Pembleton, played by Andre Braugher, and his partner, Detective Tim Bayliss, played by Kyle Secor. The case involved gay serial murders.
My scene partner gave hair and makeup a fit. She / he refused to have them touch his face, so the make-up (that he applied himself) came off looking like a clown mask on screen. He drank alcohol and got high off drugs in his trailer, and proceeded to hit on the crew guys who stared at him. I arrived to set dressed as a man, and allowed them to do anything they wanted to me to create the character the director needed. The long fingernails they put on me prevented me from being able to urinate on my own and I asked myself, “How do these girls do it?” I brought a new lover to set with me that night and, so I could relieve myself, he held my penis and pointed it at the urinal for me. I laughed so hard that it was impossible to pee in a straight line.
In 1999, when Darryl and I took FREEda across the country to Los Angeles, there was no looking back. After a big farewell performance, sponsored by Salem and held at the 14 Karat Cabaret at Maryland Art Place, we packed up his Sentra and drove almost non-stop to Los Angeles. The one stop we did make was in Memphis, to visit my friend Stephen Bond. Stephen had managed my African store for all four of its years before taking another job back in his hometown. It was my first time visiting Memphis, and I walked the famous Beale Street and ate food at B.B. King’s restaurant and club. Let’s be clear -- I did NOT visit the Elvis Presley mansion. I did go to the Lorraine Motel to see the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The motel had been a museum for quite some time, and I saw his letters and memorabilia related to the civil rights movement, heard his recorded voice, and stood on the balcony next to where he was shot. My spiritual connection to the man who had a dream was more powerful than
I had ever thought. I cried for our world’s loss of a great leader. I cried for the people who died during the struggle. I cried for myself because all of the emotions underlying everything I had gone through to get to that moment were right there under the surface. They were tears of joy and pain. Joy for the challenge ahead of me, and pain for the things I was leaving behind.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, I felt like I was seeing home for the first time. It was like the moment when Diana arrives in Rome in Mahogany. I looked at the palm trees and billboards and felt a sense of purpose. The promise of a new beginning outweighed any inconvenience we had to endure. Darryl and I stayed in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment that belonged to one of his college buddies, and slept on the floor. The apartment was right down the street from the CBS studio lot where The Young and the Restless was taping.
On a previous trip to Los Angeles, Darryl had met twin brothers Ron and Richard Harris, and they owned a coffeehouse in Hollywood that was a part of the Hudson Theater. The theater was in an area called “Theater Row,” a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard where a lot of Hollywood actors would get their feet wet performing on stage in small 99 seat theaters. The Hudson Theater was where Jenifer Lewis had done her one-woman show, The Diva is Dismissed. Ron and Richard were identical twins and claimed some relation to Berry Gordy, Jr. They said they had even worked for Motown during the seventies, when Berry first moved the company to Los Angeles. Although it was very unclear whether any of that were true, I was still impressed because they told me Diana Ross had been in their home.
Ron and Richard agreed to do a staged reading of FREEda at the Hudson, to see how audiences would embrace the show. It was like having an audition with a live audience. After a successful reading, we mounted a full production that ran for four months. It was a dream come true to be on stage in Los Angeles. We got a great first review, a critic’s “pick of the week” in Backstage West / DramaLogue:
We see a lot of autobiographical one-man shows, but never too many good ones, and this is a good one. FREEda Slave: Mask of a Diva is its doubly significant title -- a multiple play on words that delivers the gist of this actor's confessional apologies. Madison does some soul-searching, asks puzzling questions, and even comes up with a few satisfactory answers. Why was he compelled as a youngster to dress up in his sister's clothes? Why did he wake up from a dream with a seemingly heaven-sent answer to his problems, a conviction of his calling? Why was he willing to lose the love of his life, (and he did), for the freedom to dress in women's clothes?
As Alfred/FREEda, the character he plays, Madison eloquently explains that clothes may make the man but do not make the man a woman. He is acting, role-playing; he remains a man, a black man, a gay man, which is difficulty confounded -- but after all, a man. "Before I'm gay, I'm human," he avers. "Before I'm black, I'm human." Speaking directly to the audience, he declares that most of all, "FREEda Slave is a tribute to all the women I've ever loved and admired: Coretta, Maya, Aretha, Diana, Gladys, Lena," and others both fictional and real, including his sister Fredrika, and the wondrous super-diva Miss Marlena, who virtually adopted him, ("the first time I had a mother.")
He paints the picture of what Native Americans called a "beradache," a perfect combination of man and woman in one person. Madison is an ingratiating performer; eminently likable, genuinely sweet-spirited, good-looking as a man and better-looking in drag, (he has great legs.) He gets expert help here from the lighting designer (uncredited), from recorded music (sometimes skillfully lip-synched) by Gladys Knight, Billie Holiday, The Supremes, etc… and most especially from the playwright/director, Wharton. FREEda Slave is a seamlessly collaborative expression. — Polly Warfield
To be an actor in Hollywood for the first time and get a review like that, I was on top of the world. We got “okay” reviews from the gay press. I couldn’t figure out why we got lots of love from women, but it was like pulling teeth to get gay men to come see the show. I always made sure drag queens were allowed to come for free. I wanted to meet them and, if possible, get their take on what I was doing. Coco Perez, a white performer, was doing a one-person show in West Hollywood at the same time and the gays loved her! She’d had speaking lines in To Wong Foo, so she was known to a degree. West Hollywood, or “WEHO” as it is sometimes called, is a strange animal. The area has very subtle, racist overtones. It also has a zip code of 90069 -- where else can a gay person live with “69” in their zip code? I couldn’t figure out if our lack luster reception from the gay community had to do with us being black. In WEHO, if you are black with a white lover, you are accepted. Otherwise, it is difficult to find support.
Our audiences were comprised of a lot of straight women, and many came back more than once. Eventually gay men came to see me, but women outnumbered them two to one. Darryl had created a strong base of contacts during his back and forth trips to Los Angeles, while I did not know many people in California. His likable energy drew people, and women flocked to see his brilliant debut as a stage writer and director. He became like a little brother to me, and I will forever love him for giving me the words that made a character like FREEda come to life. He was my Holland-Dozier-Holland, the team that wrote all the number one hits for the Supremes. He wrote my number one hit, and the awards for FREEda went on and on:
1999 Backstage Dramalouge “Pick of the Week”
1999 Maryland State Arts Council Award, Individual Artist in Playwriting
1996 Maryland State Arts Council Award, Individual Artist Solo Theatrical
1995 Maryland Artscape Festival Performance Art Award
Opening night in Los Angeles was special because Rosario Dawson was in the audience. She came with her manager, who was considering Darryl as a potential client. Marcella Lowery, who we had met at a film screening and who had become our mentor and “Los Angeles Mother” also arrived with roses. She was starring in the NBC series City Guys, but was unhappy with her character’s development. She always looked out for Darryl and me when our rent was short or the phone bill was overdue, and we were grateful to her.
Debbi Morgan came to one of our last performances, but the actress I especially wanted to see out in the audience was Jenifer Lewis. An original “Harlette,” (background singer for Bette Midler), and the star of Jackie’s Back, (a Lifetime network television movie in which Mary Wilson has a cameo role), I have always adored her. I met Jenifer once in passing at the Hudson Backstage Theater, and told her that her spunky, onstage persona inspired the character of FREEda. Darryl had seen her one-woman show and had encouraged me to watch tapes of her to incorporate elements of her personality into the character of FREEda. I explained the show to Jenifer and invited her to come. However, being that she had just adopted a child, she asked me to send her a tape of the show.
Gladys Knight being unable to attend the show was my biggest disappointment during FREEda’s run. Darryl and I had met Gladys on the set of Donnie Simpson’s show Video Soul on BET, and she had taken a picture with me and signed a poster of herself that we later used in the show. She had asked me which of her songs were lip-synched in the play, and was pleased that we were using “Giving Up,” a drag favorite. Not too long afterwards, Gladys Knight’s son, James Newman, tragically and mysteriously died. Along with our heartfelt sympathies, we sent her reviews of the play and a program, which included her picture, as well as a copy of the script.
Before the show’s run ended, and luckily for me, one of my promotional cards wound up at Castle Rock Entertainment where a new pilot was being shot by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Tinsel Tales was a fictional series patterned after the E! True Hollywood Story documentary series. The producers of the show called the Hudson Theater looking for me. It was my first audition in L.A., so I took a video clip of me in drag on Homicide: Life on the Street. For Tinsel Tales, I won the role of a drag queen madam who has slept with famous celebrities and dishes the dirt. “I’ve seen them on their way up and I’ve seen them on their way down,” was her memorable line. My scene was shot in a Hollywood mansion, and Ernest Borgnine appeared in the pilot. I had worked with his wife, Tova, at QVC, where she promoted a wonderful skin care line made from cactus. Talk about living the Hollywood dream…and I didn’t even have an agent! Once we finished shooting the episode, I attended a private screening of the pilot. However, as is the case with many pilots, ours was never picked up. Thus would begin the cycle of my Hollywood experience -- a promise of something big, then disappointment. When I later saw Kaplan’s name attached as an executive producer on the show Six Feet Under, I thought he might call me to play a quirky drag queen who ends up dead. No such luck.
I finally did get an agent after signing with Agency West, but began to learn right away what Hollywood means by “type-casting.” After my agent left the agency, I got even fewer auditions. Disappointingly, when they called, it was always for a drag role.
“Dale, there is a new Macy Gray video that needs a drag character, you would be perfect. Can you be in drag and in the valley in an hour?”
“Dale, that Lifetime series Strong Medicine needs a pre-op transsexual to play Jenifer Lewis’ best friend. We are sending you straight to producer interview. Dress up.”
“Dale, City of Angels is doing a show about a botched sex change operation on a transsexual. Can you pick up the sides and go down to the studio in drag for a reading?”
The challenge was that I always grew a beard on my off time, and had to go through an entire transformation just for an audition. I hated getting dressed in drag in the middle of the day and driving to a casting office. Gradually, the “drag” auditions dwindled down, and acting work in general became less and less.
A few years later, I decided to market myself the way I wanted to. I created a website that showcased my experience, complete with video clips of me acting in and out of drag. It was an attempt to put myself in front of Hollywood’s eyes all over again, for one last push. “Fuck it,” I thought. “I’m a gay actor and I am proud of the shit I have done. This town has got to see that.”
In 2006, I got a call from a casting agent, Bill Dance, who had seen FREEda on my website. He was looking for a background extra for a new Joel Schumacher movie, starring Jim Carrey. The producers wanted to interview actors in drag that they had selected from pictures. The casting director explained that the film’s director wanted to handpick the actor for the scene.
“You mean they want to handpick a person who crosses in the background and never has anything to say?” I questioned, with a touch of sarcasm.
“But this isn’t just anyone, Dale,” the casting director explained. “This is Mr. Joel Schumacher, who directed Flawless and wrote Sparkle, Car Wash, and The Wiz.”
I shaved my beard and put on my sexiest leopard mini-skirt and push-up bra. In broad daylight, I drove from Inglewood to downtown Los Angeles to meet the man who had helped Diana Ross find home. The film project was called The Number 23 and I won the audition hands down, using the very same outfit I had worn on Homicide: Life on the Street almost ten years earlier. The only difference was my wig, which I had changed to a fiery red.
Joel loved my leopard ensemble. He only made one change -- he had me grow a couple of day’s worth of hair stubble because he wanted me to have a not-so-perfect look. During my scene, I was surprised and delighted when he asked me to improvise with the speaking actor. Joel burst out laughing and said, “I love what you’re doing!” Suddenly, I shot from drag queen background extra to day player. Joel signed my VHS copy of Sparkle, (I forgot to bring my copy of The Wiz), and my contract named my character as “Lady of the Evening.” I wanted to use the name FREEda SLAVE, but who argues with Joel Schumacher? I was turning forty-eight the following week, so I had a chain link tattooed across my arm with the words “FREEda Slave.”
I rushed to the film’s private screening six months later, only to discover that they had cut my scene. After twenty-five years of trying to break into the business, I realized that I was tired of trying. I hung up my high heels and that Vivienne Tam dress, and they have been retired, indefinitely. But the things I learned about myself while wearing that dress -- the people I came to know, the insight I gained by learning what others have gone through, the challenge I faced in looking at myself in the mirror and being honest about what was reflected back at me -- those things I never cast off. I keep them with me, always.
We’ve got to stand tall
Tumble or crawl
We’ve got to be strong
For love that’s so right
Can’t be wrong
And every day I see it grow
And I don’t want to let it go
That’s why I gotta know
Does your Mama know?