During the holiday season in 2020, CJ Higgins found themself laid out on the couch in their apartment recovering from surgery, with little else to do than watch every version of “A Christmas Carol” they could find.
Higgins watched 25 different versions of Dickens’ classic yuletide tale of redemption — and posted their reviews to YouTube.
“I do not recommend anyone do that, but I did it,” they said, adding that not all of them are great. “I mean, all of them were straight.”
The self-imposed movie marathon was not borne out of a haze of post-surgery pain medication, but something the manager of production at the Hum’n’Bards Theater Troupe had been thinking about for a few years: Why can’t there be an all-gay version of the holiday classic?
“Whenever a loudly queer piece of art is presented, the main question is ‘why does this have to be gay?’” said Higgins. “My question is, why does everything else have to be straight? Why not have a queer ‘Christmas Carol?’ Why is the straight narrative seen as the default?”
The Hum’n’Bards’ production of “A (Queer) Christmas Carol,” running Dec. 17 through 19, also serves as the soft opening of The Painted Mug Cafe, a new performance venue and coffee shop in South Philadelphia “dedicated to empowering the local LGBTQIA+ community.”
Beyond one cis man’s redemption
There are at least five theater companies in the Philadelphia region staging “A Christmas Carol” right now, each with their own take including a traditional telling, a radio play set in Philadelphia, one with new original music, and a one-man version.
Higgins and co-writer Quinton J. Alexander kept their script for “A (Queer) Christmas Carol” essentially true to the original, but every character is gay, and the duo altered the staging and text accordingly, mixing modern and original Dickensian turns of phrase.
For instance, the relationship between Ebenezer Scrooge and his dead former partner, Jacob Marley, can be read as more complicated, and the ghosts are more flamboyant than in most stagings of the story.
Higgins said much of Dickens’ language was already well-suited to this adaptation.
“A lot of times, Dickens got it on the first try. Turns out, he’s a great writer,” said Higgins. “But there are also a lot of things that we change. Specifically, we found that it’s tough to connect with the message of just ‘ask the rich guy to be nicer in the world,’ when Elon Musk is sending people into outer space while people die in his factories.”
Higgins referred to news stories showing more than 400 workers at a Tesla factory in California were infected with COVID-19 when Musk reopened the plant in May 2020 in defiance of public health guidelines.
It’s not enough for “A Christmas Carol” to change the worldview of a singular Scrooge. This queer version takes aim at capitalism itself.
“We don’t just appeal to one man’s redemption of his soul, but rather the idea that it is in everyone’s interest to contribute to their community and see the people around them as fellow human beings,” said Higgins. “I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a few tactics that the ghosts use in order to try to convince Scrooge of this. It’s not just convincing Scrooge — it’s convincing everybody in the room.”
Soft opening of a new LGBTQ performance venue
The production also sets the tone for the venue. The Painted Mug is run by a collective of a half-dozen LGBTQ people who came together to open a friendly community space at a time when many bars and stages have closed.
The L’Etage cabaret space above Beau Monde in South Philly temporarily closed early in the pandemic and has yet to reopen. Philadelphia’s only lesbian bar, The Toasted Walnut, closed earlier this year.
“A lot of the places that are left are places that really center drinking culture and party culture,” said Taylor Plunkett-Clements, managing director of the Hum’n’Bards and director of events for The Painted Mug. “There are a lot of sober queers who would like to be able to engage with other queer people in a space that is specifically for queer people and run by queer people. We were like, ‘OK, how can we do this better than the bars?’”
The Painted Mug will feature coffee and baked goods, and a performance space with seating for a few dozen people. The interior space is not completely finished, but after the run of “A (Queer) Christmas Carol,” Plunkett-Clements said the space will be ready for a more formal open house on New Year’s Day. They have booked events every weekend through January.
The space at 1527 Jackson Street, near 16th and Snyder, had been a corner retail office for an insurance company. It was a piece of real estate Plunkett-Clements would often walk past with friend and neighbor Vincent Scarfo, also known as the drag performer Beary Tyler Moore. Together, they would take pandemic constitutional walks and talk about the state of the LGBTQ community.
Moore echoed Plunkett-Clements, saying much of the LGBTQ social scene in Philadelphia is centered around bars and nightclubs, which often involves drinking and drugs.
“That’s not to mention that there’s a lot of racism problems in the Gayborhood, a lot of misogyny and femmephobia, sexual assault,” said Moore. “A lot of those spaces cater to cis men exclusively. Not to say that nobody else is welcome, but in some of the spaces a lot of trans people, people of color feel unwelcome because it’s mostly white cis men in those spaces.”
Then, the pandemic provided Moore with an unexpected opportunity: The value of their house had doubled. Their small, two-bedroom rowhome in the neighborhood was suddenly in demand, and with its sale, they could buy the corner retail shop, live in the apartment above, and turn the street level over to a business collective that would run it as an LGBTQ community hub.
“This was just sitting on the market because nobody wanted to buy a giant duplex,” they said. “Nobody was opening businesses in the middle of the pandemic.”
Plunkett-Clements said The Painted Mug has no financial backers other than what the collective is able to share, so the space will be continually improved over time as funds are raised. Any employees hired will own shares of the business.
“We need a little bit more funding so that we can build a ramp,” said Plunkett-Clements. “Ramps are very expensive, but it’s something that’s really important to us.”
They say they plan to create a space that will be inviting and accommodating to LGBTQ people who may not feel comfortable or welcome at other venues, including people who are under 21, don’t drink alcohol or use drugs, people with disabilities, parents — or anyone who just doesn’t want to stay out late on a weekday.
“I know a lot of singers who don’t want to drink that much, or don’t want to sing at 10 o’clock at night on a Wednesday, which I enjoy doing,” said Plunkett-Clements, “but it’s exhausting and some of us have 9-to-5 jobs. We want to sing on a Saturday afternoon and then go home and go to bed at a reasonable hour.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.