New York theater producer Earl Dax is what you might call emotional. Almost anything can set him off on a crying jag, whether it's talking about his recent split with his boyfriend of six months, the plight of the inner-city poor, underfunded arts education programs, or the frustrations of political activism. "There's a utopian impulse, having fought the good fight to try and make a difference, and seeing how painstakingly difficult that is, and how marginal that [effort] is ..." His trains of thought derail, and he starts weeping — nose running, eyes flooding, cheeks reddening. He grabs a cocktail napkin to dab his leaky nose as we sit in Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin, one of his favorite San Francisco dives.
The lanky, boyish-looking 36-year-old is dressed in understated indie rocker attire — weathered black leather jacket, dark pullover, gray knit cap — but his personality is colorful as the drag queens who perform in his shows. Dax is the creator of Weimar New York, a two-year-old musical cabaret having its West Coast debut at SF MOMA over Valentine's Day. For someone whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Time Out New York, and The New Yorker — and who has included Broadway star Michael Cerveris and musician Nellie McKay in past performances — Dax' lack of pretense is endearing. Hand-delivering a press kit to our office, he tells our receptionist he's looking forward to our meeting, a humble display of courtesy that's a rarity in promoters of his stature.
But then Dax seems fueled by his connections to people. He wants to bond generations of artists who have been "under assault" by everything from gentrification to HIV/AIDS, lack of arts funding, and general "culture wars." "I don't want people to come away [from Weimar New York] with one political view, but ..." he pauses, eyes welling with tears again, "but for them to come away with the sense of possibility and a feeling of cautious optimism, and to feel inspired and more alive."
Despite Dax' watery demeanor about all the world's tragedies, Weimar New York has been praised for its dry humor. The show is a musical collection of queer and politically themed comedy, dance, and performance art that pays homage to the subversive cabaret scene that thrived in Weimar Republic–era Germany from the end of World War I until Hitler came to power in 1933. During those years, a depressed economy (and populace) had its lively counterpart in a community of sexually and politically risqué acts, which Bob Fosse brought to the big screen in 1972 with Cabaret. In Weimar New York, Dax' cast makes correlations between Berlin then and the Big Apple now, using wisecracking torch songs, campy burlesque numbers, and plenty of improvisation.
Dax has spent much of his life helping various people in need, from working with the elderly at a young age to later volunteering with AmeriCorps and gay rights groups. In inner-city Philadelphia, he worked with the Village of Arts and Humanities, where he says he was introduced to executive director Lily Yeh's concept of "building community through the arts." Dax realizes Weimar won't be changing the outcome of any upcoming elections, but he still wants to engage with artists as activists. "Obviously it's a crude comparison to say Bush equals Hitler," he concedes. "But we're living in strange times, and as an artist, how do you have a conversation or respond to these things around you? I don't delude myself into thinking entertainment is politics or a revolution. But at the same time, people can make the comparison in a more subtle way, through entertainment and satire."
Given the Bay Area's history of grassroots activism and community theater, San Francisco is a natural temporary home for Weimar. As SF MOMA's associate curator of public programs Frank Smigiel explains, "It's also a no-brainer that when one thinks of the combination of liberation politics and individual protest against mainstream mores, one probably thinks of San Francisco much more than one does New York. New York is where you go to make it ... not where you go to figure out 'what it all means' or 'what to do about it all.' What's interesting about the Weimar performers is that they really occupy the 'what it all means' part."
Weimar stars Ana Matronic and Justin Bond as MCs; their names alone should sell plenty of tickets in this town. Aside from launching their careers in San Francisco before relocating to New York, Matronic is the statuesque female singer for the Scissor Sisters, while Bond plays the droll diva in Kiki and Herb, the Tony Award–nominated lounge act. The two will host close to a dozen other artists, each given a three-to-eight-minute spotlight of their own scripting. The roster includes local comedian and playwright Marga Gomez, Portland folk singer Holcombe Waller, the visual extravaganza that is Taylor Mac, and more. "You'll come to a Weimar show and see European straight-ahead cabaret performers on the same stage with Tigger! pulling a rosary out of his ass," Dax says.
The show also stars East Village performance art legend Penny Arcade, who put into words one of Dax' favorite sentiments about love. "She says, 'Love somebody and let them love you, it's the most radical thing you could do,'" he says. "I started thinking about that, and reading stuff by bell hooks all about love and speeches by Martin Luther King, and I was interested in the radical, transformative aspects of love. I think the show at an elemental level concerns itself with a desire for a most just society.
"It's so trite, but for a culture that's so awash in love songs and Harlequin romances, you would think that we would be the most loving society ever to walk the face of the planet, but that's not my experience," Dax adds with another burst of tears.
Once the weeping subsides, Dax picks his head up off the table with a little smile. He apologizes, noting that Adam Feldman, a Time Out New York writer who noted his outbursts in print ("not just a little misting around the eyes, but all-out choking sobs"), might come to the San Francisco show. "I hate that," Dax says of his sobbing. "I have a knack for doing that in interviews." But then, what would a cabaret director be without a little theatrics of his own?