Melbourne-born showman Reuben Kaye’s first solo show debuted four years ago on the same day as his father’s funeral. Created after more than a decade of performing cabaret and hosting in venues around the world, including residencies at London’s Savoy Hotel and Café de Paris, that first show was an origin story about Kaye’s adolescence that formally introduced the world to his particular brand of comedic cabaret: inimitably smart, searingly personal, and packed with daringly rearranged showtunes and unapologetic cultural commentary.
His new show – Reuben Kaye: The Butch is Back, which will open (borders willing) at the Melbourne Comedy Festival on April 7 – is bigger, bolder and in many respects, Kaye says, more nuanced than the first. A re-telling of Kaye’s coming out, the show also marks his coming of age as an artist who is aware of the power in his platform, and who’d rather plummet than plateau. “I have a platform, I have a story I want to tell,” Kaye says. “And in this show, I wanted to find a way to talk about boys and their fathers.”
The eponymous performance traverses the artist’s autobiography, weaving in high-octane renditions of anthems like ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” and The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”. Early-on, we find ourselves sitting in his father’s car, where a teen-aged Kaye has just come out to his dad and is waiting to hear the right words that, as the story unfolds, never come. What follows is Kaye’s journey in reconciling that reaction with who he knows his father to be; reconciling his father’s altered perception of Kaye with who he knows himself to be. It’s a show with as many valleys as peaks – one where Kaye’s masterful showmanship is second only to his writing.
Out of the car and into a sea of funeral-going relatives, we journey with the sequined performer back to the day of his father’s funeral in 2017, and his dressing room that night. The moment is pivotal: it’s when, through the intimate ritual of making-up his face for the stage, Kaye finally found peace perhaps not with his father’s death but with his initial disappointment in Kaye’s homosexuality. Seated on the front steps of the stage in a misty blue light, a captivating Kaye describes painting drag makeup onto his face, whitened from grief, for the evening’s performance – just as his father, a painter and sculptor, used to paint faces, portraits, onto blank white canvas. It’s a fragile moment of self-authorship that connects Kaye to his father’s history and spirit, and in turn, unleashes his now-realised potential.
These are intensely personal moments, but they resonate – and with the audience on side, there’s room for Kaye to step into his space as an educator and change-agent. “I wrote the first show as a straight up comedy and only through performing it did I find the tenderness and meaning in it,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware, and while I never want to lecture or be didactic, I’m a kind of imperfect narrator for our times.” It’s not a responsibility he’s necessarily opted for, but it’s one often inevitably thrust onto those in Kaye’s position, and he’s taking it in six-inch heeled stride. “I think the innate thing for me is the need to perform,” he says. “The conscious thing is [to] remember you have a job to do, and you have to earn your moments.”
The performer in Kaye was there from the beginning. He grew with Polish, Russian and East German roots, the son of a Jewish mother and father who were both displaced by World War II. Kaye’s paternal grandfather had ties to Yiddish theatre that saw a reverence for the arts passed down through his painter father. His mother, a dancer and filmmaker, grew up in the foster care system, where she forged a head-strong, pragmatic and brutally funny character. In the show, Kaye jokes about using his own umbilical cord as a feather boa. As a child he’d perform at the whim of his parents for dinner guests. As a teen, he survived a traumatic schooling experience by focusing on the future as an entertainer for which he felt destined.
Kaye also draws from a long tradition of Jewish and queer entertainers, the legacy of whom he always felt behind him as a young person and still does today. “Performers like Jackie Mason, Margaret Cho, Danny Kaye,” he says, the latter his own namesake – his surname by birth is Krum. “They all have what I aspire to, this ability to query the narrative, to be separate from society and look at it through a lens that has stripped away the bullshit or heightened the absurdity.” But being separate enough to play this part only comes by virtue of one’s otherness, of trauma. That means there’s constant interplay in Kaye’s cabaret, and in his life, between power and pain, joy and tragedy, kindness and cruelty.
“It’s this otherness, this alien-ness, that gives me power,” Kaye says. “You can tell your problems to a stranger, and who’s stranger than a drag queen?” Importantly, it’s drag makeup that signifies this status to an audience – so Kaye’s face, in this show, becomes symbolic not only of his paternal relationship, but also his relationship to the world. It gives Kaye license to be outlandish with his audience, to bring them out of their comfort zone – it’s part of earning the moment. “Maybe when the lights aren’t on them, and they’re watching me do what I do, all their pretences and protections can just deliquesce. It would be lovely if, by being who I am, that gives others permission to be themselves.”
True to genre, the show ends on a high note. Through an unfortunate interaction with a shoe shop worker over a pair of ankle boots, Kaye finds himself standing up – firm not only in his identity as a homosexual man and a role model, but firm too in his universalism. Arms and voice stretched to the rafters amid his show-stopping medley of Stormzy’s “Big For Your Boots” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking”, Kaye invites the audience to join him in embracing our changing world. The proposition? Forget the rules and the hierarchy, the constraints and unnecessary labels that keep us from seeing each other as people. “I’m doing this for people to have a learning moment,” he says. “I’m trying to undo this insane amount of shame that’s been embedded into us as homosexuals by the world, by history, and in many ways, by ourselves. There’s joy in that, there’s celebration. This is a moment to celebrate change.”