Twenty-five years ago, Jewish lawyers Benjamin Schatz and Irwin Keller and two friends, Jerry Friedman and Maurice Kelly, poured all the pathos and fury of the AIDS epidemic into a musical drag show that took San Francisco by storm. The founding members of the Kinsey Sicks (after sex researcher Alfred Kinsey) made it to Off-Broadway with a hit musical, “The Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet,” and have been writing and performing shows nationally and internationally ever since.
In 2016, Schatz was living in Mexico and was about to call it a career when Trump happened. He and his cohorts decided this was no time to abandon their audiences.
“Historic events change our lives, and we are living an historic event. We have the responsibility to try to shape that event and not just let it happen,” Schatz said from Puerto Vallarta, where he was preparing a new show that reprises their quarter-century of satire in drag — and addresses the current political crisis as they see it.
“Things You Shouldn’t Say” celebrates The Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet’s 25th anniversary and marks Schatz’s last performance (though he will continue to write) with the group. It will be presented by Boxcar Theatre Oct. 5-6 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco, for three shows only. The group will perform a different program on Oct. 4, “Kinsey Sicks Unplugged: No Ifs, Ands or Butts,” at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, hosted by spiritual leader Reb Irwin Keller, who performed with the Kinsey Sicks for 20 years.
The new show offers “laughter, integrity, and heroically high hair” in response to “the age of Trumpism,” the show’s promotion claims.
“I’m drawing the parallels between 25 years ago and now, so people can understand what it was like to be the target at that point,” Schatz said. “Things don’t need to be the very worst to be terrible.”
Schatz grew up in suburban Philadelphia and was raised in “a Yiddishkeit lefty environment,” which “informs everything about me,” he said. “The way I’d put it is that there is a certain kind of Jewish that I am very.”
That background shaped both his thinking and his sense of humor. One of his popular songs, “Where the Goys Are,” about anti-Semitism, reveals an ability to skate on the edge of hilarity and social significance.
“My sense of social justice animates all our shows. My humor is dark and often so dry it’s arid. I think Jewish audiences immediately feel at home.” (The group’s perennial “Oy Vey in a Manger” was a holiday favorite.)
Schatz graduated from Harvard Law School in 1985 in the dark days of America’s AIDS crisis. At 26, he says, he was the first and only lawyer working full-time on AIDS discrimination cases nationwide. Landmark lawsuits were filed, even as he witnessed countless deaths among people in his immediate community.
As he says in a powerful monologue in the new show: “To my generation of gay and bi men: We carry so many dead men on our backs, it’s a wonder we can walk at all. And we don’t talk about it… All our lives we’ve been told what not to say. Well, sometimes those are the things that most need to be said.”
The monologue climaxes with a burning indictment: “We are not the ones who should be ashamed. I’ve been waiting 25 years to say this.”
In 1999, after many years on stage with the Kinsey Sicks, Schatz left the law profession for good to devote his time to performing and writing. In addition to the Off-Broadway show, the group had an extended run in Las Vegas, appeared in two feature films and on three concert DVDs, produced nine albums and performed in 40 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia.
“I’m the best kind of lawyer now,” he said. “Retired.”
And that’s a good thing for audiences. Just as the politics of the AIDS crisis prompted the group’s efforts to build community through their irreverent theatrical performances, the current political era provides plenty of grist for their creative mill. Recent shows have featured such songs as “Electile Dysfunction” and “I Wanna Be a Republican,” and have drawn diverse audiences and standing ovations, Schatz said.
“For so many people, government is this abstract thing, but that thing determines who lives and who dies, who matters and who is just shit. Ask the folks in Flint, Michigan. Ask the folks in Puerto Rico. Or the toddlers ripped from their parents’ arms at the border by a government that didn’t even think to keep track of where they are or even who they are,” Schatz said.
Despite the strong words, Schatz says “Things You Shouldn’t Say” is not a polemic and does not harangue the audience.
“We take people from raunch to ridiculous to anger and revelation — the whole gamut of human emotion,” he promises for this, his last performance. “Part of our job is to entertain, of course. But also to leave people feeling inspired and different from when they came in. I think that is what most of us want in a show, whether we are part of the resistance or not.”