Lea DeLaria is coming to Michigan, and she has a message for the mitten state’s LGBTQ+ community: “Be here. Be queer. Get used to it.”
On Thursday, June 23, she will headline Equality Michigan’s (EQMI) annual Mission Equality event, which celebrates EQMI’s statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts. Of course, there was never any question she’d show up for her community, despite a grueling show schedule for the Broadway production of “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” running now through the end of August. It’s just in her lesbian DNA.
“Look, I decided to do this because I’ve been doing this my whole fuckin’ life. What, am I gonna stop now just because I’m in a hit Broadway play? No. I didn’t stop when I was in a hit fuckin’ television show. I’m never gonna stop. As long as I see adversity for my community, I’m gonna be out there bitchin’ at somebody about it,” DeLaria says, laughing. “And being visible and being out there is the biggest thing that I can do.”
And visibility is what the comedian and actress is bringing to the Broadway stage in “POTUS.” She’s also joined by a cast of heavy hitters from both stage and screen like “the hi-fucking-larious national treasure” Rachel Dratch; Vanessa Williams, with whom DeLaria promises pleasantly surprising onscreen chemistry; “triple threat” Julianne Hough, and many more “stellar” members.
DeLaria feels that perhaps the biggest surprise in “POTUS” is that she plays “the most subtle character of the show,” especially since it’s a farce that highlights just as much physical as spoken comedy and despite the fact that she is likely the first Broadway cast member to wear a shirt that reads “dyke.”
“This is the first time a farce has ever been written for women,” she says. “In fact, when women are in a farce, they’re usually running around in their bra and their panties. That’s just a fact, so here’s a farce that was written that was written completely for women, but it follows all the rules of … a tragedy that you laugh at.”
In a recent Daily Beast interview, playwright Selina Fillinger, for whom “POTUS” is her Broadway debut, confirmed that the production” is a direct response to the historic sexism of the genre and “for any woman who’s ever found herself the secondary character in a male farce.”
“POTUS” takes place in an alternate universe where “none of this could actually happen.” DeLaria describes her character, Bernadette, as Puck from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or, to put it more plainly, her character “causes up shit just to watch it caused.” Despite the distinctly chaotic energy she brings, DeLaria is clear that this isn’t the type of story where the female characters are pitted against one another in service of a man.
“What happens is they all join forces together to overcome an adversity, so that’s the one thing that you’ll see in this play. I mean, you’ll laugh from the first second the first word of the play is spoken; the very first word in our play is ‘cunt,’” she says. “So, from the very first word, you start laughing, and you never stop laughing. It’s kind of amazing.”
Originally slated for a 2020 release but postponed due to COVID-19, DeLaria has been involved in this production for the greater part of four years. She was first approached by the “POTUS” team to embody Bernadette because Fillinger wrote the character with DeLaria in mind. DeLaria says it’s refreshing to be a part of a story that respects that women are funny.
“As a stand-up comic for the last fuckin’ 50 million years, I can assure you that there is a stigma in relation to women and comedy,” DeLaria says, laughing. “There always has been. I don’t understand it; I’ve never understood it. Look at Lucille Ball, she had the number one show on television for like 10 years, and it was a comedy. So, there’s this total sexist concept.”
However, DeLaria shared that even this production was not free from the effects of sexism when its cast was denied of Tony Award nominations.
“The reason I feel the play wasn’t nominated for a Tony and [director Susan Stroman] wasn’t nominated as director was pure sexism, 100 percent,” she says. “They came at us telling us that we couldn’t nominate anybody in the best actress category, that we all had to be featured actresses, so, by doing that, they basically stole two Tony nominations away from us.”
DeLaria elaborated, adding that she’s categorized as a “featured actress” and so is Julie White — who plays Harriet — and is therefore ineligible to be nominated for a Tony, despite the fact that White appears in every scene of the production. DeLaria said that the “fucked up” comparison is made worse because there is no category for an ensemble cast unlike in the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“This is non-stop being talked about on Broadway right now. The word-of-mouth is ridiculous, we’re selling like fucking gangbusters, right?” DeLaria says. “And yet, the powers that be — that are mostly male [and in the LGBTQ+ community] — have decided to do X, Y, Z with us, and there’s only one thing you can call it: It’s sexism, pure and simple.”
And she has a reminder for all the other letters in the LGBTQ+ acronym: “Nobody’s louder than a dyke when it comes to protesting,” she says, laughing. “Nobody. And we’ve always got your back, and you bitches spit in our face all the time.”
In fact, by DeLaria’s estimation, the “L” in the acronym is the “most spit-upon letter of our alphabet,” and “that needs to change.”
“It’s important that we recognize that being a dyke and being a butch and being a lesbian is just as important as any other letter of that alphabet,” she says. “And they need to have our back the way that we have their back.”
As fans of DeLaria will know, her upcoming appearance at EQMI’s Mission Equality event is far from the first step for advocacy that she has taken in her life. In recent years, she has been one of the most vocal champions of the revival of lesbian safe spaces and produced “The Lesbian Bar Project,” both a campaign and feature film of the same title championing the revival of bars as a key method for fostering organic lesbian connections across the U.S. in spots where generalized visibility is low. Perhaps that’s why DeLaria, who champions both lesbian and women’s rights, called the cast of this production “magical,” despite its setbacks in recognition in the award circuit.
Nearly everyone involved in the process of putting on the production is a woman “except for our production stage manager Johnny Milani who is gay as a box of bird feed, so it just felt like a very different experience from any other showbusiness experience that I’ve had.”
That difference, she says, is as visible on stage as it is palpable in rehearsal, adding that it boils down to a high estrogen level, near total creative freedom and definitely no “verbatim police” — directors and writers who insist upon the script being read as-is with no ad-libbing of any kind. To put it in her words: “It was fuckin’ amazing. … A lot of males, when they write a script, I can assure you, do not let you do that.”
“There was great camaraderie and nothing was stifled,” DeLaria says. “So when Stro[man] said, ‘No,’ it was a no. But she always listened to what your thought process was. She would say to me, ‘Which one do you think is funnier? This or this, Lea?’ And I’ve never had a male director say that to me in my life. We all got to be involved in the process that way.”
DeLaria said that her time on “Orange Is the New Black,” as the beloved “Big Boo,” highlighted both sides of that experience as the show went on. When it began, “they were much more chill about people like myself and Natasha Lyonne, who are funny people, ad-libbing,” often resulting in ad-libs appearing directly on screen.
“Then after we got to about season five, and there was a whole new writing room, and they became the verbatim police, then it was a stifling environment in that respect. Especially when you were used to the other thing, used to being able to throw in a joke that would end up being in the script,” she says. “So, yeah, but none of that happened here, and it made for a much, much more interesting and creative process, and, obviously, a much better play. The play is a huge hit.”
Though she is busy as ever, DeLaria says that there is more “coming down the pike.”
“I’m very, very focused on my Broadway show, and then I have to get my next record out, so I’ve got about two years of work lined up right now.”