Trans Sex Workers Take Center Stage in Paul Alexander’s New Musical ‘Trinkets’
Nightlife legend Paul Alexander was born in Jamaica but moved to the Bronx when he was 7 years old. Years later, he became heavily involved in the Jackie 60 club phenomenon, a behemoth on the nightlife landscape of New York City. That era is profiled in his new musical, Trinkets.
Trinkets tells the story of four drag and transgender sex workers in the mid-90s working in New York’s infamous Meatpacking District — an area today full of high-end boutiques and elevated art installations.
Despite the industry’s decline, meatpacking continued to be the major activity in the neighborhood through the 1970s. At the same time however, a new “industry” was born. Bars and clubs catering to a queer clientele began to open up all over the area, ushering in a new era on the cobblestone streets of the Lower West Side of Manhattan.
In the ‘80s, as the industrial activities in the area continued their downturn, it became known as a center for drugs and prostitution. The sparsely populated industrial area also became the focus of the city’s burgeoning BDSM subculture. Over a dozen sex clubs including notables The Anvil, The Manhole, The Mineshaft and the heterosexual-friendly Hellfire Club — flourished in the area. Many of these establishments were under the direct control of the Mafia or subject to NYPD protection rackets.
In 1985, The Mineshaft was forcibly shuttered by the city at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “New York City yesterday closed a bar frequented by homosexuals, contending that it permitted ‘high-risk sexual activity’ linked to the spread of AIDS,” The New York Times read.
Beginning in 1990, Jackie 60 was a famous weekly party held every Tuesday in the Meatpacking District. Founded by DJ Johnny Dynell, writer Chi Chi Valenti, fashion designer Kitty Boots and dancer/choreographer Richard Movet, it served fetish-dressed gay, straight, transgender and queer clubgoers for a decade. The party was so successful that it allowed Dynell and Valenti to purchase the nightclub, “Bar Room 432” in 1994 that they later renamed “Mother”.
Jackie 60 serves as the inspiration for the play’s Trinkets, the bar at the epicenter of Paul Alexander’s reimagined Gotham where trans women are forced to sell their bodies for sex.
Led by veteran prostitute Diva (Honey Davenport), the group of hookers have to navigate through many challenges and obstacles while trying to make ends meet. Alexander uses old Hollywood plot devices married to the real life despair of the neighborhood to tell a New York story that’s unlikely to happen in today’s gentrified city.
Alexander tells the story partially with music — 16 original songs, to be exact. Alexander weaves these musical moments into a raw, uplifting story that uncovers a bevy of colorful characters in the underbelly of New York City. This includes a fashion designer with a drug problem, a drug dealer with a heart of gold, a crossdressing nympho and a raspy-voiced club MC who all come into the spotlight.
The latter is based on Alexander, as his role at Jackie 60 was master of ceremonies. Kevin Aviance, who is himself a New York City nightlife legend, fills Alexander’s stylish pumps with energy and sass.
Trinkets is a work about queer people of color, by queer people of color, starring queer people of color.
The most powerful aspect of the show is the fact that real-life drag queens, trans women and nightlife personalities are the ones on stage. While the story at times seems a bit contrived, the fact that queer people of color are portraying these roles creates an authentic sincerity not usually seen in entertainment.
According to GLAAD, LGBTQ representation is yet one more area in which white men dominate. “The queer characters that we are seeing on screen are overwhelmingly male and white,” said Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis.
Alexander’s surpasses this with his casting choices, opting for real queens like Honey Davenport, a regular headliner at gay bars in the Village and on Fire Island.
Two of the shows most powerful performances are by Jay Knowles and Antyon LeMonte as Janet and Blondie, Davenport’s supporting sidekicks. The pair portray both of their roles with ease, while Davenport has a tougher time with the heavy plot lines her character has to deal with.
Paul Alexander dished with Paper‘s Michael Musto recently. When asked to reflect on the progress the trans community has made, Alexander responds: “This play is written because prostitution was the only job these girls could do. I refer to Patricia Field’s store because she used to hire trans women all the time, and that’s the only place I saw them working, unless they worked as a bartender. There were very few jobs open to trans women, and things have changed a lot. This is reminding people of part of the struggle — what women went through when they had no other options.”
In the end, Davenport has an 11 o’clock number that speaks beautifully to the heart of the show. Hopefully, this is just the beginning for Trinkets. It’ll be great to see the show’s material reworked, produced and polished for a larger setting.
I hope that even if the show gets a glitzier and more glamorous revival, its soul (and cast) stays the same.