It was a moment that changed Boston University senior James Fluhr’s life forever.
Christmas was just one week away and Fluhr was getting out of work when he received a phone call from his dad. After discovering photos of his son in drag on Facebook, Fluhr’s father immediately denounced his eldest child as a disgrace and completely severed their ties.
In a recent Huffington Post essay, Fluhr recalled his father’s harrowing words. “’I’m not here to buy your dresses … You’re not a quiet gay. You’re a liar. I showed the pictures of you in drag to your 10-year-old brother and he cried because he couldn’t understand why his hero would do something like that. Deal with me as a man. Listen to me, son. Who would give a job to someone like you? Say, ‘Yes, sir.’ Did you hear me? Say ‘Yes, sir.’”
And just like that, Fluhr was left shell-shocked. Like the snow that fell around him, his world crumbled to the ground. All of a sudden, he lost a parent, a brother, his college tuition, and a place to live. But rather than succumbing to the malevolent cards that life had dealt him, Fluhr rose above his situation to rebuild his self-worth and help inspire others who have fallen victim to prejudice.
Now playing at The New York International Fringe Festival, Our Lady is Fluhr’s stunning one-man show that turns his experiences into a haunting and powerful tale of healing, survival, crusading towards equality, and defeating hatred. After attending the opening night performance, I spoke with Fluhr about the show, his creative process, inspirations, and more.
ALEX: At what point did you decide to turn your story into a piece of art?
JAMES: Almost immediately after the phone call, I had to find a way to save myself – re-discover my self worth. I discovered that the woman I created to save me could be inspirational to others who have faced a similar monster of hate in their lives. The decision to make it into an art piece just meant that I would begin to shape the story in a way that could be experienced by others.
What were the biggest challenges you faced along your journey of taking Our Lady from its starting point as a thesis presentation at Boston University to the New York stage?
It’s hard for me to play so many different roles on the Our Lady team. Being the actor, writer and, at times, director, I have to be honest about where my own weaknesses lie. It’s difficult to be so inside of a process and remain objective at the same time. If someone says something is unclear, I have to put my ego aside, decide what member of the team I need to be to fix the problem, and then begin working again.
What was the most valuable piece of advice or feedback you received about putting on a one-man show?
My mentors from Boston University, who helped tremendously with the growth of the show, always told me to keep working, keep writing and keep experimenting. I take this to heart with Our Lady (especially here at Fringe) because I see each performance as an opportunity to continue to tighten the story and try new things.
From where did you draw the inspirations for Our Lady’s scene and costume designs?
When it came to the costumes, I would always push how excessive they could be. If I was going to rise as a queen to save a youthful LGBTQ generation, I would have to be untouchable, glittering, slick and sexy. I also made sure that the ideas of the costumes were way past our budget restrictions so that the team working on them would have to really push creatively to make them come to life with whatever we had. For example, one of the costumes is primarily made with cardboard and aluminum foil that I pulled out of a trashcan.
The scenery is derived from necessity. I need a trunk, chair and light to tell the majority of the story, so that’s all we have. The totems of the boys that circle the playing space are small ways I could honor the LGBTQ children lost to suicide. They have to contain a soul and a spirit and again be made from nothing.
One aspect of the show that I thought was really great was its use of mixed multimedia. How do you feel the various video and audio clips (including music) in the show enhanced its narrative?
The media is a way to help the audience get inside my head. These are the stories in the news that haunt me and stay with me. These are the songs I lip-sync in my room alone. It’s important to share those with the audience in a way that outwardly explores my inner experience. All the sounds and levels of volume have a distinct purpose in helping the audience feel the emotions I am having.
How has your family responded to the show?
They have been very supportive of me and my journey. I know it’s hard for my mom to watch, but she shows up for every performance to stand beside me. I couldn’t love her more.
On Our Lady’s website, you dedicate the final rehearsals to your Aunt Michelle. Can you tell me a little bit about how she inspired you as an artist?
Michelle was really like a big sister to me and I have to credit her with introducing me to theatre. She joined Our Lady’s army and passed away before Our Lady could rise in New York City, but I think it’s important to remember that she is still with us and that she was a loyal advocate for equality and understanding.
Who is your favorite drag queen?
Are there any plans yet for productions of Our Lady after Fringe is over?
The goal is a full run in New York City. Nothing is solid right now but I’m determined to share this story with as many people as possible.
Is there a main message you want your audience to take from the show?
I don’t claim that the story or message is groundbreaking or new. I am simply standing up and saying, “Remember that you are beautiful no matter who you are and remember you have the right to live.” I want the audience to know that I stand beside them as both James and OUR LADY.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Our Lady that we didn’t talk about?
It’s easy to look at Our Lady and write it off as a show that only the LGBTQ community will relate to. But ultimately, at the heart of this show is a story of finding strength. Hate is universal. While it is generally discussed in terms of oppressed minority groups, it is something we as human beings can all relate to. I don’t care what sexuality people are – what I care about is sharing what helped me get through a hard time and hope it can inspire someone else.