Prescott Seymour’s life as an actor is a drag, but he isn’t complaining.
Seymour, known to theater audiences as “The Robin Williams of Drag,” is bringing his alter ego, Sutton Lee Seymour, to the Shaw Theater stage for six performances of a play titled The Lady in Question.
A 2007 graduate of Western Michigan University’s Musical Theatre program, Seymour started performing as Sutton Lee six years ago in New York City, where he makes his home.
“I got out of a long-term relationship that just destroyed me,” Seymour said. “A drag friend said I should do a number, so I did my number, which was a medley of Eartha Kitt, Patti LuPone and Carol Channing. After my number was done, there was just this raucous applause, which pulled me out of my rut.”
All the while, Seymour had been performing and acting, touring and doing regional theater and entertaining on cruise ships, and waiting tables to make ends meet.
“Sutton became an opportunity not to have to do that anymore,” Seymour said. “Ten or 11 years ago, drag did not have the respect that it has today, but drag is theater and I just want to do theater. I have to do it.”
The star’s latest role puts him on center stage in a free-wheeling satire of 1940s thrillers, which tells the suspenseful tale of Gertrude Garnet, the most glamorous concert pianist on the international stage. On tour in 1940 Bavaria, her colossal self-absorption is challenged when a handsome American professor requires her aid in rescuing his mother from a Nazi prison.
The biggest challenge, Seymour said, is finding truth within the style.
“It’s a roller coaster of tones and it moves quickly between being uproariously funny and terrifying moments of pure human shock and awe,” he said.
The play represents playwright Charles Busch’s political statement about the courage of a drag queen who stood up for her rights and the rights of others in the LGBTQ community during the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City.
While the leading lady role is traditionally played by a drag queen, Mark Lierman, who directs the show, said it’s a play, not a drag show. He said Busch loved all movies and this play is his way of showing his appreciation for movies of the 1930s and ’40s that promoted America getting into the war, such as Casablanca.
“Notorious was the film that really inspired him,” Lierman said. “The beauty of it is that Seymour and I spent a lot of time talking about the drag aspect of the show. It’s a wink towards that, but the intention is to never draw attention to the fact that it’s a man playing a woman.”
Seymour said he had a misconception that the play had to be a big drag farce, which caused him to struggle with the script.
“It’s one of those shows that the more I work on it, the more I appreciate it and enjoy it on all the levels it presents,” he said. “The audience will see how funny and poignant it is. It will leave them with some thoughts and questions.”
Seymour was tapped to bring the production to life by Joan Harrington, director of WMU’s Theater department. He will be surrounded by a cast of 11 theater students.
“We really wanted to do something that could reach out to the LGBTQ community in a way that was exciting and we always look for ways to bring back one of our successful alums,” Lierman said.
The play’s themes speak to contemporary issues and the warning signs inherent in current events of the times. Much like the drag queen embroiled in the Stonewall riots, Seymour’s character stands up for what’s right and stands up for humanity and willingly puts herself in harm’s way for the betterment of people.
In Act One, the leading lady says she must love herself first and foremost, but in the second act, she starts to fight for others.
“You have to move beyond the spoof aspect, because it is a good story,” Lierman said. “The drag has to be the punctuation mark, where the play and story is the full sentence.
“It’s a fun, dark comedy and you’re dealing with heavy situations, but it is OK to laugh at the subject matter.”
“I think we still live in society that’s defined by norms — what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do — and a drag queen flips that,” Seymour said. “You’re making a statement that you’re not supposed to make.”
He said he’s been told that actors should be entertaining people and not bringing in politics.
“I think an artist’s job and duty is to make political statements, because we have the ear of communities out there. Through our art, we can make political choices,” he said.
The Lady in Question
Western Michigan University
1903 Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo