“Everyone is Welcome – No Exceptions” is the motto of Rachel’s Café in Bloomington, Indiana, a university town with a liberal and artistic ambience and pretensions. Rachel is a transsexual, and in her rather makeshift café (chairs not matching, menu misspelt) regales us as she closes up with the story of a life which led to this moment. She is played by Graham Elwell in a one-woman show of 60 minutes or so.
A kind of bland bio-play in which all the pain and conflict is leeched out by the even, honey-sweet Southern Belle tones which Elwell adopts.
Rachel has only been presenting as female for a few years, and is surprisingly hesitant about it. When a couple of Texas bigots walk out Rachel deflects the hurt with a joke “He didn’t know whether to call me bitch or bastard’, but also with ‘guilt that I caused him to feel uncomfortable’. Some would say that she has a long way to go before she earns to the right to call herself a woman – she hasn’t started oestrogen and is still dubious about losing her penis. Indeed there is an argument among liberationists that transsexuals can never be women, and that the status of transsexuality is itself unique and blessed. None of this is addressed in the play, which steers clear of any kind of hard argument in favour of a kind of bland bio-play in which all the pain and conflict is leeched out by the even, honey-sweet Southern Belle tones which Elwell adopts.
Solo shows for an actor playing only one character are always difficult to pull off. They can fall back on simple narrative, hoping the story is sufficiently interesting in itself, as this one does. Alternatively, in their more satisfying form, they can find the traditional and more compelling virtues of drama – progression, conflict and resolution – by locating the thesis-antithesis-synthesis in the psyche of the protagonist. There is a perfect opportunity within ‘Rachel’s Café’ to do just that, in that there is a decision point where the outcome could have much at stake for Rachel. Her son, Tom, has invited her, along with her other children and his ex-wife, to a High School event. Tom has even said that he is happy for her to turn up as a woman. Should she go as who she is, or should she conform to what is expected? In a development drama, this would be the pivot on which the drama hung, we would care about the decision, and it would reveal some victory or defeat. As it is, the decision is thrown away, because the play lacks dramatic (as opposed to narrative) structure.
There is pain and societal enmity in the play, but it doesn’t register much. Vandals smash the windows of the café – once – and though there are rifts in her family over Rachel’s coming out, they are presented so rationally, so dully, they are resolved into sweetness and light, as the ex-wife becomes the new best friend. The foundation of the café is equally easy, as a sympathetic anonymous donor stumps up the cash and says, ‘Pay me back when you can.”
Maybe it depends on who you know. Author Lucy Danser is clearly in awe of Rachel.The real Rachel is described as something of a saint, and the inhibition which results from this makes for something which would make a ‘heart-warming’ (ie.twee) documentary on More4 or BBC3, for people who know nothing about the subject, but is fatal to anything dramatic. ‘Rachel’s Café’ reminds of that phase of Gay Theatre in the 1970s, when because it was so rare to see positive images of lesbians or gay men, everyone had to be relentlessly upbeat; perfection is both unbelievable and very boring to write or see. Thankfully it’s a long time since we had to write paragons, and the result is a plethora of multi-dimensional gay characters and situations , heroes, villains, and all stages in between. I’d like to believe that fictional treatment of transsexuality has also gone beyond the ‘Must be Wonderful’ stage. And when it comes to treatment of ‘real life’ good writers are ruthless rather than respectful.