Rotterdam 2023 Review: PLAYLAND, Queer History Made Uncanny
Queer history is something of a bricolage: it's only been in recent years that much of it has been discovered, or perhaps more accurately, made public, as so often queer lives and their infinite variety had to be kept hidden from the forces that would destroy them. As both personal histories and official documents allow for a greater and broader undertanding, it seems natural that these pieces should be put together in the experimental performance documentary, Playland.
Even those labels seem too restrictive to describe multimedia artist Georden West's debut feature. Centred on the long history of Playland Café, a Boston bar that was the centre of queer life in the city for 60 years, Playland offers what could be described as an audiovisial archival tour, with the best kind of archival material: stories, voices, songs, dances, and a gaze that shifts between its characters that breathed life into this unique setting.
Inside a replica of the café - but one that shows it perhaps in its state before demolition (the bar was a victim of gentrification and homophobic NIMBYism), we hear archival audio of various of these 'neighbours' complaining about what they see as 'ridiculous' noise and 'disgusting' behaviour; all the while the camera pans out to Lady (Danielle Cooper, Pose), our Mistress of Ceremonies. She presents to us the cast of characters, the rooms they occupy, the music and sounds that still linger between the floorboards (along with the permanent smell of sultry cigarettes) and the stories that are imbued in the furniture, the stage curtains, the swinging kitchen doors, even the knives and glasses have played their part in Playland.
Are these ghosts we see before us, of the wait staff, the cooks and dishwashers, the bartenders, the drag queens, the singers? The colour palette is something of a tone that gives a feeling of nostalgia and warmth, yet at the same time is slightly otherwordly, as if these stories are slipping through from the dimensions to which they'd been banished. That means that these are all people from varying points in the bar's history, crossing over one last time and intermingling, since the story of such a place cannot be linear.
Given that this is a liminal space which the audience is witnessing, you notice the small details - the cigarette stubs, the fingerprint smudges on glasses, coins and feathers, the teasing glances and heated kisses in corners - as well as the larger moments of dance and song. The archival footage provides fascinating history, such as about the publication Fag Rag, and old super-8 movies of the drag shows performed at the bar. Interspaced with the corporeal ghosts through whom are the lived stories imbuing the space, it feels as a history should be, when that history has been too long ignored.
It does feel at times as if the energy stays at the same level; given that this is a story of a gay club, and we see evidence of performance, music, and dance that was a cornerstone of the venue's life, it seems to lack the racuous energy that would come from this place in its heydey. But then again, perhaps this is deliberate: perhaps West is asking the audience to look outside the stereotypes of gay bar life, and see the people, despite their 'costumes', as what is permanent and unyielding, even if the energy of these individual nights is now scattered.
Playland defies easy definition, just as queer history does: while much is lost, there is still much to know, and to celebrate. These ghosts won't disappear just because a building is gone. Playland makes you feel as if you are walking through a performing museum, interacting with those whose made the history happen, those who normally are ignored, but whose lives make queer history possible.