Lip-Synching Icons to Life

Dickie Beau’s “Blackouts” explores the disembodying nature of fame

By Haleh Anvari

Dickie Beau in “Blackouts” / photo: © Paul Blakemore

Dickie Beau’s debut in the United States, Blackouts, opens to the defiant sound of a woman telling a man he can take her to a venue, but he can’t make her sing. She is in charge of her voice.

In Blackouts, it’s the British drag artist Beau who is in charge of voices, a collage of them that he has unearthed from archives, and to which he lip-synchs for a mesmerizing hour. Chiefly, he pays tribute to Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, two stars who lived their complicated lives under the unremitting gaze of the public. While these two women have long been icons for glamorous drag impersonations, Beau channels not their songs but their candid, rarely heard conversations. In Garland’s case, Beau extracts her stream-of-consciousness descriptions of being a performer and a mother and of her fraught relationship with her weight, from tapes she recorded for an autobiography that was never written; for Monroe, he draws from her last interview, recorded by the journalist Richard Meryman weeks before her death in 1962, where she talks knowingly of the fragility of children and of her own precarious situation as a sex symbol who was never taken seriously.

Blackouts, presented at the Abrons Art Center as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, offers none of the light-hearted comedy or campiness that is associated with lip-synching in the drag tradition or in the hugely popular reality show Lip Synch Battle,which draws millions of viewers per season. Rather, Blackouts, is a serious look at the disembodying nature of fame and the vulnerabilities of the adored artist. Beau utters the words ‘Don’t make a joke of me,” in both women’s voices, pointing to a problem both experienced as they were cast in personas that hid the depth of their thoughtfulness. Beau performs in exaggerated clown makeup, his milky face a dilapidated mask; he uses the grotesque to highlight the alienation they felt by dint of their own fame. (Garland performed her songs in a clown costume more than once.)

Blackout includes the voice of Meryman recalling his interview with Monroe in her Los Angeles home back in 1962. He explains how he extracted himself from the recorded conversation and wrote the interview as the subject’s monologue, “ and this became my shtick,” he explains through Beau’s lips. Monologue is also Beau’s shtick. He and Meryman are both witnesses. Meryman let Monroe check the transcript of their conversation and even edit parts of it, allowing her control over her voice, and Beau serves as the medium dragging the dead women from their past into the present to make them heard again in a different tenor. The theater scholar Stephen Farrier, who has written on the tradition of drag performance, suggests that lip-syncing has the effect of making time porous by mixing the past with the present. Beau’s use of carefully chosen archival audio material creates a narrative in which he not only brings these women back to life, he distorts the typical memory of them in their familiar roles, as the innocent Dorothy and the sexy Girl.

A reel-to-reel tape recorder, a typewriter, a dial phone and boxes of film, help Beau call our attention to the machinery that supported these women’s performances, marking the gap in time that he is traversing between us and them. But the theme of machinery goes deeper than mere décor. His subjects too, are captive cogs in a machine. He depicts the famous scene of Marilyn standing over a subway vent — a fan billowing his skirt — like a broken marionette, and his Judy stutters and hiccups to regular glitches in the recording. He also uses elements of magic, at one point spewing yards and yards of white tape, a gesture to his own body as a recording machine, at the service of his subjects.

In the last scene of Singing In The Rain, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal a young Debbie Reynolds as the real voice behind Jean Hagan’s lip- synching silent movie star, we applaud the triumph of authenticity over artifice. We are not to know that Reynolds herself was dubbed elsewhere in the movie by Hagan and another uncredited singer, Betty Noyce. This borrowing of voices from one artist for another for the sake of a polished production was a common practice in a Hollywood where artists were parts of an interchangeable stock in the service of the studio. In Singing in the Rain we are in fact consuming a collage of women’s voices that have been displaced by the synching of lips. In Blackouts, Beau borrows the voices of two of his favorite childhood idols and reveals to us their authentic selves as talented women reliant on and vulnerable to an industry rife with chauvinism back then — and to this day.