Songs for a bookworm in drag: Musical on wheels to visit Free Library branches

The Bearded Ladies Cabaret partnered with the Free Library to develop a children's show about a worm living inside a banned book.

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Lili St. Queer And Sam Rise rehearse together.

Loretta the bookworm (Lili St. Queer) and Mo the librarian (Sam Rise) have a heart-to-heart during a rehearsal for "Check It Out!!!" In the play, Loretta hides in a book called, "Julián Is a Mermaid," about a boy who likes to dress up as a mermaid. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Imagine a bookmobile that collects banned books that have been orphaned by libraries in other states, and transporting them into cities with more lenient libraries.

Now, imagine one of those books is carrying a stowaway: a well-read bookworm named Loretta wearing a fun hat and scarf — Loretta, a puppet, is in drag — who is looking for a friendly place to chew pages.

That is the premise of “Check It Out!!!,” a musical theater performance for children now touring through branches of the Free Library of Philadelphia, developed by the Philadelphia-based drag troupe Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

“Loretta is hiding in ‘Julián Is a Mermaid,’ which is a book that is very delicious to Loretta,” said John Jarboe, artistic director of Bearded Ladies, referring to a picture book that sometimes appears on contested book lists because of its gender-fluid main character.

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“The show is really about: Is the Free Library a free space?,” she said. “What do you need in your library for it to be delicious and nutritious for a bookworm?”

Lili St. Queer holds up a bookworm puppet.
“Check It Out!!!” features a drag bookworm named Loretta, portrayed by Lili St. Queer. Loretta hides in a copy of “Julián Is a Mermaid,” a picture book which has appeared on contested or banned book lists because of its gender-fluid main character. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Check It Out!!!” will be performed outdoors on the Beardmobile, a fully-outfitted mobile stage built on a commercial truck by the Bearded Ladies during the pandemic. The performance will be accompanied by live music performed by the hip hop band Ill Doots.

“Doing LGBTQ-themed programming is something that’s been happening at the Free Library for a long time, but it does feel extra important right now,” said Erin Hoopes, manager of the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library, in Rittenhouse Square.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that there are anti-queer, anti-Black movements. Those aren’t new either, but they’ve been getting a lot of traction and power recently. That’s scary,” said Hoopes. “These are movements that want to deny basic human rights to queer and trans people and people of color, especially young people.”

According to the Human Rights Campaign, the past year has seen an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ laws proposed by state legislators across the country. Tennessee recently passed laws restricting drag cabaret performances and certain forms of health care for trans people. A similar pair of laws is advancing in Florida, and legislatures in at least seven other states are considering bills restricting drag performances.

According to the American Library Association, last year also saw an unprecedented number of demands to ban books, nearly double from the previous year. The majority of the books were identified by their LGBTQ themes. In the Philadelphia region, the Bucks County School District is considering removing 65 titles, most of which for “sexualized content.”

“People are seeing in the news that books are being banned. We’re lucky enough in Philadelphia that we’re not seeing much of that,” said Link Ross, supervisor at the Fumo Family Branch in South Philadelphia. “We’re not acutely dealing with these issues in the same way that they might be in Tennessee.”

The Philadelphia Free Library regularly features LGBTQ and drag programs, including storytelling time and panel discussions, but Ross said it’s rare for neighborhood libraries to collaborate with a theater company to develop original content on the scale of “Check It Out!!!”

“Explicitly queer programming, especially outside of Pride Month, is important to me,” they said. “There are definitely more pointed efforts to offer LGBTQ library programs in the month of June, but I like to offer them all year because we’re gay all year, or at least I am.”

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A close-up of Elle Morris singing as other members of the cast look on.
Elle Morris belts a song during a rehearsal of “Check It Out!!!,” a family-friendly musical celebrating queer youth and families. The show, put on by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret with music from Ill Doots, will visit Philadelphia libraries and perform outdoors from the Beardmobile. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The conceit of “Check It Out!!!” is that the bookmobile is coming from Tennessee to bring banned books to Philadelphia. Hoopes said that practice of transporting banned books is as fictional as a bookworm in drag.

“I actually hope it’s not happening, because I don’t want those books to be taken away from the communities where they should be,” she said.

“Check It Out!!!” encourages its audience to use libraries and librarians to find the books and materials that fit their interests in an open and unrestricted way.

“Freedom is part of what the Beards do as part of our mission in the city, to bring joy and create spaces of permission,” Jarboe said. “We are a welcoming space.”

A close-up of John Jarboe
John Jarboe is artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The performance does not step into issues of book censorship, LGBTQ laws, or legislation on drag performance for children. While Jarboe personally is concerned and frightened about those issues, she does not find them fertile ground for creativity.

“It’s uncreative and it’s also terrifying to me, and very real. It’s both of those things,” she said. “It’s boring because it’s uncreative. and we are very creative. There will be nothing boring about what we do.”

“Check It Out!!!” is silly — with a talking bookworm, and a rap from the perspective of an open book — and interactive: the performers frequently ask for the audience to shout responses back at them, and they end with a call to action to seek out a librarian, right now.

The point, Jarboe explained, is for the audience to feel welcomed enough to have a good time at the library.

“If you watch enough Mr. Rogers, and I’ve watched tons of Mr. Rogers, what you learn is that young folks are listening. They know what’s going on,” said Jarboe, who once created an entire show based on Mr. Rogers.

“So we’re talking about banned books. We’re talking about how it’s hard sometimes to be in a place where you can be yourself,” she said. “We’re acknowledging the realities in a thoughtful way, in a way that we think is digestible, entertaining, and caring.”

“Check It Out!!!” will tour four branches of the Free Library, beginning Saturday, April 22 at the South Philly branch at DiSilvestro Park, then go to Logan in North Philadelphia on May 13, then to the Philadelphia City Institute on May 20, with another stop at Parkway Central on June 26. Other branches may be added as the tour progresses.

South Philly, Logan, and City Institute branches are normally closed on Saturdays, but branch managers will open their libraries for a few hours on the days of their performances to give audiences a chance to go inside the library after the show.

Elle Morris, Lili St. Queer, Sam Wise, Jordan McCree, and Anthony Martinez-Briggs rehearse at Headlong Dance Theater.
The cast of “Check It Out!!!,” (from left) Elle Morris, Lili St. Queer, Sam Wise, Jordan McCree, and Anthony Martinez-Briggs rehearse at Headlong Dance Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ross said the Free Library system has started to receive more funds from the city budget, which should soon enable branches to expand their hours.

“I’m hoping by the fall most locations will have Saturday hours,” they said. “Having a program on a Saturday is not something that can happen that often right now. But things are looking brighter for the Free Library.”

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