Pictured: John Cameron Mitchell as ‘Hedwig.’ © Joan Marcus
On April 4th I will see Hedwig and The Angry Inch at Broadway’s Belasco Theater for the final bow of the magnificent Lena Hall as Yitzak. It’s my fifth time seeing the Broadway production, third time with John Cameron Mitchell. I was at the first Westbeth Theater performance of Hedwig in 1997 when “Midnight Radio” hadn’t yet been written so the final song was “You Light Up My Life” in German.
I saw the original Hedwig run at the Jane Street Theater on opening and closing night plus dozens more in between. I’ve been to Hedwigs overseas and U.S. regionals. If you include occasions I’ve watched the film version, I bet I’ve seen Hedwig over 200times and happily so. It is the greatest piece of theater of the last 20 years. However, I’ve never seen a production that cast a black actor as Hedwig or Yitzak.
So it’s noteworthy on April 14th African-American Broadway alum Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange, American Idiot) takes the role of Yitzak. Huzzah! A black Yitzak! We will surely one day get a fierce black Hedwig, which will be fabulous overall, yet also shine intriguing light on the one character in the Hedwig-Universe who is most significant but the least discussed or reckoned with – I speak of Luther Robinson, the black American soldier who becomes Hedwig’s first love, and is (seemingly!) the author of Hedwig’s greatest folly.
Luther proposes marriage to Hedwig – whom at the time was a fella named Hansel – then insists Hansel must cut off his penis so his anatomy will match the fake female passport required to get him out of Communist East Berlin. The unhappy result of Hansel’s adventure with Luther is genital mutilation, the literal “angry inch” of the title, and the visible source for all the grief and suffering that carries the story through.
In an amazing show filled with incredible plot twists and complex figures, what an astonishing character Luther is! In the history of African-American supporting roles of the 1990’s in white male directed projects, Hedwig’s “Luther” towers over the lot, equaled in surprise and gravitas only – perhaps – by Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.
The 1990’s, let us recall, was a pitilessly segregated era in both mainstream and indie media. Whether TV, films or theater, black characters rarely appeared prominently in white directed ventures outside the Morgan Freeman buddy movies (Shawshank, Se7en) or certain projects that featured sprawling ensemble casts (Rent, Boogie Nights). Back then if you saw a film or play with white actors in the lead, then white people were gonna have ALL the good parts. Black folks had our shows, white people had theirs and only in the occasional Todd Haynes or Spike Lee joint – did the races find a mix of significance within a story.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch did not follow that line, as John Cameron Mitchell, star of the show, creator of the character, writer of the book and director of the film, doesn’t roll with the regular. On-stage, Luther’s importance looms over the play, his blackness fully known – yet unseen – as Luther’s ‘voice’ is always delivered by the white actor who plays Hedwig, in the smoothest, velvety Denzel tone. This is no small matter. The reason Hedwig is a tougher part than Mama Rose is cuz the actor must sing his face off, own it like a rock star, sell the jokes, deliver the pathos, dance in high heels, with a German accent AND… have a convincing “Luther” too. (Try THAT, Patti LuPone!)
Plus “Luther” can’t be a goofy caricature. You have to BELIEVE in this guy. Luther’s first ‘appearance’ in Hedwig and The Angry Inch always gets a laugh, cuz its funny to watch a bedazzled, bewigged white male actor suddenly sound like Miles Davis. But Luther’s intent is powerful and bent on seduction, so in his next moment when he gives Hedwig the gummy bears, Luther gains audience respect, “Ah bet you lak can-dee… Why not take the whole baaaag?”
Luther’s final words are, of course, betrayal, as he insists the Marry-me-to-get-out-of-East-Berlin scheme will only work if Hansel passes a required “full physical examination” at immigration to prove true femaleness. Hansel must leave something behind – his dick – to win freedom.
This is an astounding course of action for a lone black man in 1980’s Germany to take with a poor-but-very-milky-white family. Luther is hardcore! He has no fear of reprisal! Sure, Hansel’s frosty mom goes along – she even knows just the doctor to do it (Did Luther pay her off beforehand or are they Sweeney-Todd-ish ghouls?) but let’s remember, Luther is a black man in the world. What could he possibly be thinking here? The Reagan ‘80’s was a dark time for Civil Rights. Is Luther on a lunatic turn-the-brutalities-of-slavery-onto-random-foreign-white-boys kick?
Does he earnestly believe (or know!) the only way to help his new love move forward in life is to sway him to sacrifice? Or is Hansel, this not-a-trans-person-but-soon-to-be-lady somehow ACTIVE in a personal self-destructive goal to manifest physical damage as part of some attention-seeking, ambivalent-to-life coping mechanism spiked on an endless loop of inward self-hate? Is Hansel the kind of hot but damaged kid who wants to make his outside as ‘ugly’ as he feels within?
Did Luther sincerely love Hansel?
Who the hell is this Luther Robinson?
In the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) Luther is brought to life with splendid silver-tongued blackness by veteran Canadian actor Maurice Dean Wint (best known in the VHS era as the nasty Negro madman of the sci-fi cult fave Cube (1997), but beyond showing Luther as an actual black person, the film gives no further clue to his motives or what he may feel in the privacy of his doubt.
After the Hedwig/Luther wedding, it’s flash forward to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas, on the marriage’s first anniversary November 9th, 1989. Luther is leaving Hedwig for good on the same day the Berlin Wall comes down. Hedwig is now alone in a strange land, genitally altered, knowing if she had just been more patient, and perhaps took time to see Luther for who he was instead of who she wanted him to be (more on that below!) then “Hedwig” would still be “Hansel” and able to freely leave Communist East Berlin with his head high, manhood intact.
So one may ask, what happened during that long hot year Luther and Hedwig lived in Kansas? What was their marriage like? Did Luther viciously dominate Hedwig, as present day Hedwig holds sway over Yitzak? Or was he always off to the local bar, leaving Hedwig alone to possibly discover an old crate filled with Luther’s childhood 45’s of Stax soul music’s greatest hits?
Is that how Hedwig renewed her musical education and got turned onto LaVerne Baker, who’s so lovingly name-checked in the show’s next song “Wig In The Box?” Were Luther and Hedwig affectionate? How often did they make love?
The Hedwig we meet in the show is not particularly concerned with sex. She wants to be held and comforted but if she can’t get that she will take total worship. Is this cuz she got all the sex she needed from Luther so she’s over it? Is that why she now only cares about love? Did Hedwig sincerely love Luther?
In her core, Hedwig is a romantic. And the text indicates in the early days of their marriage she was at times so giddy to please her man she might even ignore the ache of her inch but Hedwig’s ultimate emotions on Luther are not fully revealed in the show or film. In both she appears more upset about the Wall coming down. The pain of Luther abandoning her seems like an afterthought. The sob in her voice as she begins the “Wig In The Box” song is full of tremulous pain but not from realization one has given themselves over to a demented psycho who likes to go overseas, scoop up pretty boys, cut off their dicks (or some equally deforming action), keep em around a year or so, break their hearts then split.
Regardless, Luther tips his hat and vanishes from Hedwig’s narrative as swift and mysterious as he entered, never heard from again. With as much tortured reflection and vengeful energy Hedwig directs towards Tommy Gnosis, it’s surprising she has so little to say on Luther. She weeps for her gender, yes. She’s distraught about the Berlin Wall, sure. What does she feel for her husband?
Is Hedwig demonstrating an extraordinary act of forgiveness? Or does she realize Luther was just a pawn in a game she’s playing on herself?
Yes, marrying Luther could get Hansel economic uplift and U.S. citizenship. But any American dude could do that. Luther, above all things, was a black man, and in order for Hansel/Hedwig to achieve ALL their dreams, s/he needed more than a way out. S/he needed to complete her rock music education by acquiring “soul.” Hansel’s been listening to those “crypto-homo-rockers” like Lou Reed and David Bowie, so he knows those dudes learned their best from black men like Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters.
Hansel knows the lyric “And the colored girls go doo, doo, doo-doo” is not because there were no white chicks available to take a Walk on the Wild Side. For Hansel to truly elevate herself beyond what Germany made her AND become a real rocker, he had to attain “black.” Not metaphoric black, but actual Negro-ness that every blue-eyed-soulster from Mick to Madonna and beyond, has accessed.
And Hedwig can remember… back when she was Hansel… Hansel was a slut.
I don’t mean ‘slut’ in the sex-shame way, or that Hansel even had sexual experience. But the show’s narrative strongly implies Luther was the first person to come upon and proposition young naked Hansel sunning himself (brazenly!) on a broken piece of church and I refuse to believe it. Hedwig is lying by omission. Nobody STARTS with a man like Luther and no way it was Hansel’s first afternoon at the local East Berlin queer cruising ground.
I’m sure a boy as cute as Hansel had hung there many a’time and required a full aerosol can of “Creep-Be-Gone” to beat off the stream of sweaty male admirers his comely hips and vanilla crotch, smelling like raw soap and sovereignty, would attract. On the fateful day Luther meets Hansel, he doesn’t find a total naïf, Luther found a professional.
Don’t believe me? Watch that scene in the movie again. John Cameron Mitchell as “Hansel,” in full dewy-twink mode, staring up at Luther while chewing those gummy baerchen over his “Mole-Aarrs,” with that amplified, honeyed “Who me?” look on his pastel face. That’s not a moment of new discovery. That’s the practiced, confident stare of a seasoned coquette. Yes, Hansel is lonely and deprived, but he knows what happens when he turns “it” on. Luther’s probably not even the first dude who approached Hansel THAT DAY but Luther is The Best and has everything Hansel needs, plus, the boundlessness of black.
Hansel knows there are thousands of lads in East Berlin that Luther can choose from if he wants. A Luther can get anybody, but for a Hansel to get a Luther… that is rare. To have a Luther CHOOSE you – O scarce bliss! That’s the source of pride and thrill and “I knew I was special” glow on John-Cameron-Mitchell-as-Hansel’s face. The 19-year-old Lauren Bacall was a virgin when she met Humphrey Bogart on the set of “To Have Or Have Not.” That’s why her “You know how to whistle” bit is still so sexy. Nobody can flirt like a virgin can.
Then we get the song “Sugar Daddy,” a winking, rib-tickle number designed to show the triumph Hedwig feels at what she perceives is her Big Carnal Conquest. “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly rolls, Hey sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.” In both the show and film, Hedwig performs this song direct to audience. Smiling, sashaying like a seasoned vaudevillian giving proles a good run for the money, Hedwig sells “Sugar Daddy” like its yours all yours, baby.
But to paraphrase Carly Simon, this song is not about you. It’s about sex with Luther. It’s about fledgling little white boys having hot, homo, amalgamated, MONGREL interracial sex with enormous old black men. ‘Sugar’ is a word that brings the color white to mind but “Sugar Daddy” is ultimately, as Terry Southern might put it, “An ode to giant dark dork” and all the glorious sensations it can bring to a (implied, but unconfirmed) vestal ingénue blonde boy like Hansel.
“Oh, it’s the thrillllllll of control,” Hedwig gleefully croons, as might any happy power-bottom (or top!) but “Sugar Daddy” has a sad undertone. While Hedwig larks to dance “in Milan and Rome,” she stays vague as to what lovemaking with Luther was actually like or what happened to them next. How long did they kick it before arriving at Hansel’s kitchen for that meeting with The Mother? A month? A week? One night? Although the song cheekily espouses on “black strap molasses” and “black designer underwear,” it says nothing on Hedwig’s feelings for her first love being black love or any related consequence.
We know Hedwig adores black music. Does she have interest in black current affairs? Perhaps the biggest slayer of relationships between black and white people is when the subject of Exactly-How-We-Feel-About-Race is dealt with insensitively, or not at all. Did Luther ever share with Hansel his experience of life with racial oppression? Were ethnic identities essential to their intimacy?
Hedwig has no clear-cut comment here so its up to the individual to make an interpretation, but “Sugar Daddy’s” final stanza is a (ironic?) couplet of Hedwig’s joy to finally feel her Aryan superiority-complex flower, “Its our tradition to control, like Erich Honecker and Helmet Kohl, from the Ukraine to the Rhone, Sweet home uber alles, Lord I’m coming home, yeah! Come on sugar daddy bring me home!”
Kids do stupid stuff all the time. They get drunk and crash the car, start smoking cigarettes, say ‘Yes’ to a sure-to-be-botched sex change they may not totally want. I can recall my biracial African-American teenage-self following negative feelings inside, making mistakes I still wonder if I actually got out of. But each awful situation was of my doing. Free will. Nobody pushed me. I put myself into peril, imagined myself destructively, fantasized about danger and brooded ways my damaged self worth could manifest in flesh. I hung my own noose and slipped myself out.
Like any boss, Hedwig surely understands herself and her ‘selves’ more than she tells us. She can know even if Luther did bring Hansel to the quack doctor’s table, it was Hansel’s choice to lie on it. In the film and on-stage Hedwig narrates Hansel’s botched operation as a near-passive, hapless innocent, balefully trusting authority figures to do right by him. Children of abusive families can command great clarity to murky topics, but here is the only occasion in the show where I feel Hedwig’s recall is (even for her) far too self-serving to be completely accurate. Truly, Hedwig can remember Hansel had the power to say no. But he said yes.
Perhaps Hansel’s negative self-image and lack of inner worth propelled him, in some conscious-unconscious way, to WANT mutilation. Maybe the asphyxiating ethnic sameness of his East Berlin home mixed with love of rock and roll made Hansel wish for a man – not any man but a black man – his opposite, to come and enable that self-harm. Hedwig’s life philosophy in “The Origin of Love,” is about finding “Your Other Half,” whom she believes, or wants to believe is Tommy Gnosis.
On-stage Tommy, like Luther, is voiced by the Hedwig actor but in the film he is portrayed by Michael Pitt, as a blonde and unsophisticated moist eyed dude of 19 like Hansel once was. Hedwig declares Tommy is her Other Half but Tommy is clueless to this notion, then brutally rejects it. If Tommy is the true piece to Hedwig’s cosmic puzzle, he sure ain’t ownin’ up. But that doesn’t stop Hedwig to continue naming Tommy as hers. We’ve all been there. Projecting a foolish dream of “love” onto someone who doesn’t deserve it, but is such a knockout in the looks department and so adorably lost, ya just can’t help yourself.
When we do this, we must also know we could miss the real person we should be with, and they may slip away. This brings us to the decisive question: did Hedwig refuse to seriously consider African-American Luther as her true “Other Half,” relegating him to mere “Other” so she could be free to get herself a cute white boy? Is the reason Hedwig displays such resigned acceptance to Luther’s departure on Berlin Wall Day because Luther isn’t actually leaving her – Hedwig pushed him out?
Take my hand and let’s imagine a moment during that yearlong trailer park honeymoon of Luther and Hedwig. Don’t worry, it brings no harm to a canonical story to visualize one night. Remember, its just art it wont hurt you.
It’s hot in Junction City. The sun is mercifully going down. Hedwig sips sweet tea laced with corn-liquor she got from the snaggle-toothed dude from the trailer down the way (don’t ask!) and fans the flies impatiently as that rusty Cadillac finally pulls in. Hedwig watches Luther get out of the car. They know each well now and no longer need polite inquiries to recognize what’s on the other’s mind. Luther gives Hedwig that “Yeah, I’m late” frown followed by the “You look good” squint. Hedwig inhales, swats the flies and plops into her ‘color-not-found-in-nature’ lawn chair with a patented “What did you bring me?” pout. Luther smiles, reaches into his bag.
Hedwig leaps up with joy, “Etta James’ 1982 concert album ‘Red Hot & Live!’ Oh meine Güte, Luther how did you know I wanted that? This has “Dust Your Broom” and “Rock Me, Baby!” And that incredible extended cut of “I Rather Go Blind!“
Then Hedwig moans and eases her shoulders, like she always does when her husband suddenly pounces on her lips, strong hands massaging the small of her back upwards so she can nestle his brawny chest. Her favorite spot on Luther’s muscular neck is the space right below his ear lobe. She licks. Luther sighs, gently, gently and stares into her gemstone blue eyes with his smoky browns, “Because baby… you got everything I need. While I have you I want to give you everything too.”
Hedwig slowly looks up and smiles, “Oh angel Lu, you know you’re always gonna have me.” Luther nods, holds her close and quietly chuckles.
Then, Hedwig shudders. Its been a long day and the sting in her crotch hurts more than usual, but giggles girlishly when Luther brings out his Panasonic long-player, puts the album to side one, track two, and they start to sway. As Hedwig hears Etta explain, once again, how you should rather go blind than see your man walk away, Hedwig knows, they BOTH know that Etta never lied and in this instant, everything’s gonna be all right. Forget they only got hot-dog buns for supper, forget that overdue rent, forget the Ten O’clock News talkin’ bout growing unrest in the Eastern Bloc due to steady loss of power in pro-Soviet governments and the near-future implications it has for Germany.
Now… It’s just you and me, kid. Hedwig and Luther, Lu and Hedy – two crazy dreamers waltzing together under the last bit of orange sun and the soft buttery light of the mosquito zapper. The large and lusty black army officer joined with his ‘Better Half’, the petite and wistful white girl-boy-girl barely standing before him… round and round they go. They would rather go blind. Round… and round.