What We Owe
“This show is about you and your problems,” Ann Liv Young declares. Her blonde wig and powder-blue eyeshadow are harsh under the house lights, which she has requested the theater tech turn up. She wants to see who’s in her audience.
SHERRY SOLO CABARET
July 15-30, 2016
As her alter ego Sherry, Young interrogates audience members for most of Sherry Solo Cabaret, her latest engagement at Joe’s Pub. “What’s your problem?” “What’s your sexual preference?” “Have you ever been raped?” Her questions can be deeply personal, especially for a public setting. Often, they elicit nervous giggles. Sometimes, gasps. Yet for all her questions’ shock value, there’s something substantive—and deeply satisfying—about her “Sherapy.” Although Young may seem to be an aggressor in her encounters, she analyzes only the information that the crowd shares. Young deals in hard truths. But they’re truths.
The evening starts out in earnest: Sherry, Sherry Jr. (Young’s tween daughter Lovey), and Lynn (Tom Curitore), sit perched on stools, microphones in hand. They don matching patterned dresses and platinum-blonde wigs. As they prepare for their first song, Sherry coos to the audience in a perky drawl: “Y’all are so far back there.” Rows of empty tables separate the performer and her patrons. “Strategic.”
This kind of banter is characteristic of a lounge cabaret, but Sherry’s commentary quickly devolves into an indictment of the performers on stage. She chides the fourth performer, Thomas (her partner Michael Guerrero), for not singing along to the second pop track. The gruff man, who is dressed to match his counterparts, takes her criticism like a scolded child. The audience, not particularly phased by these admonishments, simply takes in the scene. But then Sherry brings these viewers into the scene. “How can they try harder?” she asks of Lynn’s and Thomas’s performance. Her question is not rhetorical.
Here, Sherry makes a game move: she shifts her focus and her analysis from the troupe to the audience. When one man tries to avoid her inquiry (“You got me. May I defer?”), Sherry denies his request. Thomas points out the man’s discomfort. He’s cornered. And yet he continues to put up a front rather than feel out a genuine answer to her question. Sherry, like a Socratic seminar teacher, repeats her question to other audience members: “Why?” Patrons, one by one, pitch responses: Thomas and Lynn can be more committed, bolder in their artistic choices, better rehearsed. Finally, Sherry turns to her daughter. From the stage, Sherry, Jr. sways on her stool. Her legs are crossed at the ankles, and her tights, which have a skeleton outline on them, are tucked into pale-pink sandals. She raises the mic, then peeps: They can go deeper. In other words, they can be more in touch with the experience of performing.
What is so masterful about this exchange is that by the end of it, Sherry isn’t focused on Thomas or Lynn at all. Instead, she has shifted the spotlight to her crowd. And she has laid bare some patrons’ inability to genuinely engage with the performance—their inability to be vulnerable. The audience, too, can go deeper.
Sherry chats with most of the twenty-odd people at Sherry Solo Cabaret, but she hones in on a few in particular. At the top of the evening, Sherry approaches an older woman sitting near the front of the stage. Why are you here, she asks? The woman explains that she, like Young, is from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and wanted to support a local artist. At a nearby table, two patrons snicker; this woman, their response suggests, doesn’t know what she’s in for. Immediately, this woman takes on the role of the innocent attendee, primed to be shocked and embarrassed when Sherry inevitably says something controversial or intrusive. Sherry does not say anything aggressive to this woman, though; she does not need to. Instead, she lays into her nephew, who arrives late to the performance and with a swagger and sarcasm that Sherry gleefully tries to shake. She asks him about his sexuality, his faults, his flaws. She says that she despises an audience that is “difficult, jaded, hiding,” as opposed to one that is ready to be honest, and she is relentless in her criticism of the nephew. He coolly dismisses her comments, but one has to wonder how deep they strike.
There are other patrons, though, who are ready to engage with Sherry—excited, even. When she asks another man what’s on his mind, he mentions that he was admiring Sherry, Jr.’s tights. He was looking to get a pair of gloves with a similar design. Sherry admits that she is intrigued. Why do you want the gloves, she asks? “I have big hands,” he explains with a hint of insincerity. This tone ruins the moment for her. As she explains to the group, the young man went too far into conscious comedy. She wanted more of the theater that he was creating. Theater is, for her, something sincere; not shtick. “What is wrong with you?” she asks him. “Are you really like this as a person?” Even if Sherry’s comments are blunt, there seems to be some truth in them—everyone in the audience is putting on some front and everyone is flawed, even if most people in the room refuse to acknowledge as much.
Young’s performance is, to a degree, contingent on who attends a particular show. And yet, as Sherry, she has both go-to refrains (“Why?”) and stylized riffs. It is fascinating, too, to see audience members fall into certain roles without Sherry’s explicit instruction. Like participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, they establish themselves as rebels, followers, jokers. And they enliven Young’s alter-ego. On this given evening, for instance, a woman tries to take the mic from Young to lead a round of “Sherapy” for the table next to her; Sherry calmly surrenders it. Another woman calls Sherry out for what she perceives as taunting: “Who do you think you are? This is torture.” Sherry promptly launches into a diatribe on what torture actually is. The woman from the North Banks then jumps into the escalating scene to address the people around her: “We didn’t know it would be interactive, did we?” Sherry deftly spins this attack on those confronting her. “You’re surprised? Well, you should have done your research.”
Even the climax of the show seems inevitable: five friends, tucked into a booth, have an encounter with Sherry that heightens so drastically that she asks the audience whether or not the group, save for the biggest offender, should leave. They end up hovering near the front door—still somehow entranced by the performance that they had, minutes earlier, condemned. Sherry and Lynn then perform a racy, retaliatory song and dance for the friend who remains seated. Earlier, when Sherry asked him what she could do to make him like her more, he responded with a sexually suggestive, smarmy “come over here” gesture. From atop a table, Sherry gets in his face, swings her hair, and locks eyes with him. The attention, Sherry states, is exactly what he asked for, wasn’t it? It is tough not to see her response as a victory—and, at the same time, one of themost vulnerable moments in the set. Mid-song, she even takes off her wig to reveal two slim, brunette braids. She no longer hides behind Sherry’s mask.
Elsewhere, Young acknowledges that her entire performance is a cover, a filter through which she sees the world and, specifically, the room. “We make what we make,” she says of her troupe. “We are not ironic. We are not real people. We are fakers. We are jinxers. We are failures. That’s why we’re here.” Is this a defensive declaration? Perhaps. And yet, ironically through “faking it,” she arrives at some tough truths: people can be patronizing, people can be pompous, people can put up fronts, people—strangers, in this case—can readily point fingers at one another. And even Young, or at least Sherry, is not impervious to slights.
So is it possible that attendees at Sherry Solo Cabaret will not hear what they want? Yes. Is it possible that Sherry’s questions can re-traumatize patrons—specifically when she asks curveball questions about sexual orientation and non-consensual encounters? Of course. But Young, as Sherry, seems to want people to rid themselves of shame and secrecy. Furthermore, she encourages audience members to acknowledge their imperfections. “Do you consider yourself a failure?” And she wants them to take responsibility for their actions. “Why are you laughing?” If these patrons have a grasp on their personalities and behaviors, then perhaps they can move past them and immerse themselves in
Young and her troupe hold up their end of this bargain. They are sincerely committed to playing out their alter egos—even though these alter egos are artificial. Their characters are frank, if unapologetic, and they are honest about how they see themselves and others. “You are not better than us,” Young as Sherry says to one haughty viewer. “I like you because you hold back and you observe,” she says to another. “We owe you nothing,” she reminds the whole group.
At the close of the evening, Sherry cedes the stage to her daughter. Sherry, Jr. sits on her stool, where she has waited patiently, passively the entire evening. What are the ethical implications of Young having her daughter participate in the show, much less witness the raw conversations and confrontations? On the one hand, Sherry, Jr. is not subjected to Sherapy. And Young doesn’t play the role of Mama Rose here. Her daughter simply gets to dress up in a fun costume, sing when she wants to, and sit back on the stage as her parents put in a night’s work. In this sense, her presence seems harmless. Young and her partner rehearse at home, so it’s natural that their daughter would want to get involved in their projects.
As for the claim that the performance addresses subjects that are often viewed as inappropriate for a child: Young knows as much, but she could still justify her daughter’s presence. She is, in a somewhat perverse way, exposing her daughter to a moral code, one in which honesty and thoughtfulness reign, and one in which taboo subjects become diurnal. Why be ashamed of your sexuality, your flaws, your physicality? The fact that her subjects, for this lesson, are adults could conceivably support the argument that these values should be instilled at a young age. This education is, though, raw, public, and unpredictable. It’s a primer for adult life, but one with an unknown cost.
Sherry, Jr. is, however, undeniably sincere. As she sings a breathy, a cappella version of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” the audience finally calms. Only the recipient of Sherry’s table dance tries to insert himself in this moment, humming the tune just loud enough so that nearby guests can hear him. And then, it’s all over. Young hawks her merch table, the troupe leaves the room, the lights come up, and the theatergoers transform, once again, into bar-goers. They huddle with their friends and partners. They are comfortable. The bare, public intimacy of the preceding hour is imperceptible. But if Sherry Solo Cabaret is not a blueprint for society, it is at least a blueprint for how to be an audience member. As Sherry says to the crowd, speaking about Lynn: “He comes here ready to work. Do you?”