By Tom Alvarez
On Jan. 30 at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the cast of Netflix’s wildly popular series, “Orange is the New Black,” won the SAG Award for Outstanding Cast in a Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Joining the 40-member ensemble on stage was actress and comedian Lea DeLaria, who plays prisoner inmate Carrie “Big Boo” Black.
Also a jazz singer, DeLaria will perform songs from her sixth record “House of David: delaria + bowie = Jazz,” when she makes her debut at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club in downtown Indianapolis, Friday, March 18 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, March 19, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Recently, DeLaria spoke by phone with The Word about her upcoming “House of David” Cabaret show. She had just completed an RSVP Caribbean cruise during which she performed, and was calling while on a drive from Fort Lauderdale to Miami.
The conversation immediately commenced with a discussion regarding David Bowie, the iconic singer-songwriter who died on Jan. 10 and the focus of her Cabaret tribute here in Indy. When she first heard the news, DeLaria said, “I had the same reaction that everybody had to David’s passing. None of us expected it. I actually never met him, but I was in constant contact with his office and his people. I was absolutely shocked.”
DeLaria said that because of her recording of 12 covers of Bowie tunes, which she “reinvents through the language of jazz,” people assumed they were close friends.
“I was working when it all went down,” she said. “My fiancée (Chelsea Fairless) texted me the news. I started to cry. It was very upsetting. From that very second and for the next three days my life changed. Because of the record and its popularity, everyone thought I knew him, so I received numerous calls. Everybody wanted a statement. My statement was and will always be that he was taken from us too soon. He was a guiding light of artistry, music and politics. He had so much more to do. There was so much more music to come.”
When asked why Bowie’s music speaks to her, DeLaria said, “It speaks to any queer person in the later part of the 20th century, who grew up like I did. I always had an affinity for David Bowie. He was the first person out there saying, ‘Not only is it not wrong to be weird – it is actually kind of cool.’ I grew up in a little farm town in Illinois (Belleville), so to have someone say that to me: ‘Be yourself and the rest will fall in place. Love yourself. Create what you want to create and the rest will fall into place.’ He taught me that. That’s the path I have followed my entire career.”
According to DeLaria, Bowie was planning to see her “House of David” show the Wednesday after his death at New York City’s Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, where the singer has a regular gig. When she performed that night, DeLaria said, “When I sang ‘Life on Mars’ that night, it was particularly poignant and probably the best I have ever sung that song.”
During the chat with DeLaria, it was inevitable the topic would switch to “Orange is the New Black,” which has catapulted the actress into a level of fame she could never have imagined.
“I have been in the public eye since 1982,” she said. “So I have always said it was a long climb to the middle. I was just generally doing my life. I was occasionally making an independent film. I was doing guest spots on television shows. I cut records. I toured. I did some stand-up. I was living a charmed life. I never had a day job. I was able to do my thing. Occasionally people would stop me on the street say ‘Wow. You are Lea DeLaria. Can I get a picture?’ or ‘Would you sign an autograph?’ I mean, that was my life. Now, with Netflix reinventing television, my television show is watched by 65 million people around the world when it drops. It is the number one television show in the world when it airs.”
And who exactly is DeLaria’s fan base?
“For my entire life, most of my audience has been gay men – not lesbians,” she proclaimed. “I got my first Broadway show (‘On the Town’) back in 1998 and, of course, gay men love Broadway. But I also pulled a lot of straight people. And even before that, when I was the first openly gay comic in America on television on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, I found out afterwards that I had a lot of straight black people in my audience. So, I have had a mixed audience for well over 20 years. When it comes to stereotypes of butch types, I like to say. ‘You can’t judge a butch by its cover.’ I have been out there trying to say and reinforce that people are people. We should accept our differences and celebrate our sameness and move forward from there.”
DeLaria conveys pride when she says “Orange” has really gone a long way in helping dispel stereotypes of butch lesbians: “Boo is the smartest person in that prison. She is beyond smart. She has a heart of gold. These are images you never see of my people. Butch lesbians are often regarded as stupid, that we are truck drivers, beat up our girlfriends, get drunk in bars and pick fights.
“The show has also done a lot for the trans community through the image of Laverne Cox’s character (Sophia Burset). I feel that’s what my character in Orange has done for butch lesbians. I mean, we are ostracized by our own people. Now – not so much. It’s fascinating and indicative of what a marvelous tool for change the show can be. As a feminist, I appreciate all its positive images of women of all shapes and sizes. Prior to this you had never seen anything like it. In that respect it has changed the face of television. We are seeing more positive images of women of all races, of trans people and queer people. I think it is amazing.”
Warm, yet always direct and to the point, when asked what audiences at her three Cabaret shows can expect, DeLaria answered, “They are going to get a little music. A little stand up. They are going to get everything I do.”
For tickets and information about “House of David” at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club call 317-275-1169 or visit www.thecabaret.org.
Tom Alvarez reports on the performing arts for Examiner.com and is the arts and entertainment editor and columnist for Unite Indianapolis Magazine.