Merril Mushroom's Bar Dykes: Conjuring '50s Lesbian Bar Culture
Merril Mushroom came to New York City in the early ’60s like many queer people: looking for a home, excitement, a place she could be herself, and artists to hang out with and admire.
She found the Caffe Cino—one of the original Off-Off-Broadway theaters—and worked with some of the icons of the era. I came to New York to be in the theater a couple decades later and Merril and I have a similar lineage; we could be cousins in our chosen families. We are both of the same tribe: theater folk, queer artists, people who write about what we see.
In 2019, Mushroom’s play Bar Dykes is finally having its NYC premiere, decades after she left the city. The Other Side of Silence (TOSOS) is producing the NYC premiere of the play this summer.
Bar Dykes is set in a lesbian bar in the ’50s, and the action follows 11 women as they drink, dance, date, duke it out, and grab a few undisturbed moments. TOSOS, New York City’s oldest and longest producing LGBTQ+ theater company, is staging the show in an immersive setting, so the audience can eavesdrop on a girls’ night out captured as it was in the pre-Stonewall days.
Mushroom was in New York City 50 years ago for the Stonewall Rebellion, and on the first night, she recalled, she was out with friends at one of the lesbian bars.
“We all heard about it, but no one was willing to leave,” she said. “We knew there was something going on at the Stonewall, but we didn’t know it would become ‘The Stonewall.’ We were worried about friends; we hoped they didn’t get beaten, arrested, shot, or killed.”
As a lesbian growing up in Florida, Mushroom experienced the harassment and danger of being gay in the ’50s. She’d been picked up by the police, saw friends arrested because they were gay, and knew that she wanted to go someplace where it wouldn’t be as hazardous to love women.
“I always wanted to go to New York City, and I couldn’t wait to go there and live in the Village and be a beatnik,” she said. “But I was kind of late for the beatniks and early for the hippies, kind of in between.”
Mushroom did get to hang out with some pretty cool people, including the group that congregated around the Caffe Cino, the tiny theater café that was a birthplace of independent theater and gay theater.
“I guess we were all children, young people together, at the same time in the same place,” she recalled. For awhile she lived at 153 First Avenue (a building that now stands next to Theater for the New City), across the hall from playwrights Robert Patrick, Lanford Wilson, and others in the forefront of the Off-Off-Broadway movement.
In one of her day jobs—as a lunch lady in a public school—she’d collect the leftover lunches and bring them back to feed the artists across the hall.
Mushroom didn’t consider herself a playwright then, and doesn’t now: “I write. I’m a writer. I have written two plays, but done a lot more writing.” Her canon includes innumerable articles and a novel, and she’s served as an editor for feminist and lesbian magazines. She’s also organized and contributed to many anthologies, helping collect and categorize lesbian work, especially in the Deep South.
Bar Dykes will premiere at The Flea, with Virginia Baeta and Mark Finley co-directing. The work began as a magazine article, called “How to Engage in Courting Rituals,” which was published in several lesbian magazines, including a fashion magazine that created a photo shoot around it.
She and some of her friends read it out loud to each other at women’s meetings and events, and very much enjoyed themselves doing it. But the original article and script were lost after a catastrophic fire at Mushroom’s home in rural Tennessee.
The fire also destroyed an important piece of her childhood: her father’s puppets. Even though she said doesn’t identify as a theater artist per se, “It might have been in my DNA somehow,” she mused. “Daddy was a puppeteer in vaudeville. He played at the Roxy, and Radio City, and the Apollo in New York, and he played all over the world, with the USO, during World War II and Korea. He opened for Glenn Miller for quite awhile, and Sophie Tucker and Martha Raye.
“I kinda grew up with it. I’d watch him make his puppets, and when I got old enough to carry stuff, I would help him.”
As a young theater acolyte in New York, Mushroom became friends with a young artist who became the iconic American playwright Lanford Wilson, and helped produce his plays, “fundraising and picking up stuff for him. We used to go over to his place all the time. When he got famous, we were so glad. We saw his stuff so many times. I remember one of his very first theater pieces he did, which puzzled me, because it mainly consisted of jumping up and down on beds.”
Mushroom left New York in 1972, marrying a gay man with the idea that they would settle somewhere and adopt children together. They ended up in Tennessee, where they built their own house and reared five children. Mushroom continued her career as a writer and activist, and she even ran a couple of Cino-style coffeehouses.
“I wrote two pieces for Sinister Wisdom [the multicultural lesbian literary and arts journal] about doing the coffeehouses. They were women’s coffeehouses…the first one was in Knoxville, just for people to come and socialize.
“In Nashville, we did another coffeehouse. It was absolutely stupendous. All these musicians would perform, and they would do music that they couldn’t do publicly in the ’70s and ’80s because of homophobia,” she related. “It went on for years and years, at the Unitarian Church. In my head it was Caffe Cino, Nashville.”
Mushroom wrote the article that became Bar Dykes around 1982 (she can’t recall exactly what year) and she sent it to former Cino playwright Robert Patrick, who had moved to California. Patrick helped get it produced as a play in different productions in Los Angeles and Florida in the early/mid ’80s.
Bar Dykes might have been lost forever in the fire that destroyed her Tennessee home. Everything was gone. But her circle of friends, which extended across the country, made it their mission to gather any and all work of hers they could find and send it to her. When a copy of Bar Dykes arrived, she tells me, “I showed it to Faythe [Levine, an artist and curator]. She really liked it, and then she brought it to Carolyn Paquita [an artist and publisher of Pegacorn Press] which I thought was really, really, really sweet.”
Pegacorn Press published an art book of the script of Bar Dykes in 2016, which included an interview with Mushroom. The book sold out its first edition, and continues to sell. Keeper-of-the-Cino-flame Robert Patrick sent copies to queer theater folk he knew (including me).
When I read the play, I immediately wanted to produce it in New York City. I’m the Associate Artistic Director of TOSOS, and Mushroom knew our founder, the Cino playwright and queer activist Doric Wilson.
The play moves with the precision of a ritual dance; and indeed there are detailed stage directions on how the butches, femmes, and kiki girls hold and guide their bodies. The dialogue is period, but the desires are eternal. These are women in a world a decade before Stonewall who just want to be who they are, and find a friend, a lover, or camaraderie with someone who doesn’t judge them. They are shaped by the closets they must live in, and the whole piece moved me with its humor, darkness, and essential hope.
After TOSOS produced a well-received staged reading at the 2018 Queerly Festival, directed by Virginia Baeta, the company decided to make the play part of our mainstage season this year.
I called Mushroom soon after I read the play in 2017, and we became phone buddies as I filled her in on our efforts to produce it. I was thrilled to tell her that we’d be doing a production. When we talked again for this piece, I asked her how she reacted when I called the first time.
“I was curious about who you were,” she said. “Every now and again, somebody calls me and they want something or another. And I’m glad that you liked the play! I didn’t really think all that much about the play. And I have a lot of stuff that I work on. I sent it to Bob, Bob sent it to you, then you called and said you wanted to do it!”
Mushroom has never seen a production of the play. “[Bob] did one in LA, and one in Florida, and I didn’t see any of them. The last time I saw it was when Faythe brought a copy of the book she and Caroline did, and we had a big party, with a spontaneous dramatic reading. That was really, really fun.”
For Mushroom, a production of her play is a pleasant surprise in the midst of a still-active career, even though she refers to herself as retired. “The activism I’m doing now is mostly gardening and doing environmental stuff,” she shared. “And I work in my small rural community, working with poor people and people who need anything from food and clothing, or a gas card to go see their kid who is incarcerated.”
In some ways, her life in the South could not be more different than the relatively brief period she spent in Greenwich Village at the dawn of the Off-Off-Broadway tradition that TOSOS carries on today.
“The state of Tennessee has decided to delegate a lot of things to the counties for health and social work,” she explained. “They sent up several different boards on a county level, then district level, then state level. I’m on a lot of those. It’s really interesting because people here are very strange.”
But in others, it strikes me that this might be another version of the queer community she helped foster at the Cino in New York.
“They certainly are exactly who they are, and they make no bones about it. And there’s all different kinds. There’s a huge queer population: we have a faerie sanctuary and a queer people of color sanctuary; several homestead groups and lots of individuals. The faeries are mostly older, because they’ve been around for a really long time.”
In many ways, Mushroom’s life seems to be just as she would have it, which in itself is a bit of a queer fairytale happy ending.
“I garden, and I clean my house. I’m old so it takes me a long time. I belong to a couple of book clubs, a hippie book club, and a Republican white book club. I’m pretty involved with women’s groups: writing groups, the Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project for the last eight or nine years. I love to read, and I have more time to read now.”
Mushroom doesn’t intend to travel to New York to see Bar Dykes. She doesn’t go anywhere she can’t drive, she says.
“I do miss a lot of that action that happens in New York…sometimes.”
TOSOS presents Bar Dykes by Merril Mushroom, directed by Virginia Baeta and Mark Finley, at The Flea, 20 Thomas St., New York from July 11-August 3. Thursday - Saturday July 11-13, and Wednesday-Saturday, July 17 - August 3. All shows at 7 p.m. Tickets are $32, and available at the box office or here.
There will be a post-performance discussion Friday, July 12, with Rose Norman (Southern Lesbian Feminist Activist Herstory Project), Rena Carney (Pagoda Playhouse Founder), Cassandra Langer, and others about Bar Dykes, gender, and the importance of lesbian/queer bars.
Printed copies of Bar Dykes are available on Pegacorn Press’s Etsy page.