Rumi Missabu, Impresario of “Witches of Salem” Judson Memorial Church, NYC
Photo by Iory Allison
The incomparable Rumi Missabu; theatrical producer, director and shining star performer, unfolded his vision of “The Witches of Salem” at the venerable off B’way venue, Judson Memorial Church for a single night of mayhem, finger pointing, and merciless execution! Rumi reminds us that we are all one step away from the hysteria of witch hunting and the devastating tragedy that the human drama can be. This was an evening of legendary Theatre!
Rumi Missabu is one of the original members of the San Francisco “Cockettes,” that wraggle taggle gypsy group of radical thespians and Sexual Anarchists whose major contributions to the art of theater were script- less productions teetering on the edge of chaos, glitter, feathers, and rhinestones – all in overabundance, and the proud display of the member’s members – as in cocks galore.
As to the last ingredient in that line-up, think of it, after the Cockettes, we had to wait 30 plus years before Bill Clinton inadvertently brought male genitalia into genteel discourse or at least inflammatory confabulation with all its over-blown shudder of approbation. The Cockettes, on the other hand, fully intended to pull out all the stops and let us know that a dress did not a woman make. In the Cyber Age our current bunch of hipsters seem to have taken a cue from the Cockettes, if not Bill, and are busy shaking up their junk for the benefit of all mankind, posed in front of their bathroom mirrors. The major difference being that The Cockettes did it with glee and in public at the Pagoda Palace Theater, whereas, the buff boys of social media are still in the closet needing a digital medium to screen the guest list.
I will always think of Rumi as Madame Gin Sling in that masterpiece of melodramatic mayhem, “Pearls Over Shanghai” a misplaced tale loosely chronicling the rapacious schemes of MGS (not to be confused with MSG – but with sortta the same results) kidnapping innocent Caucasian girls selling them down the river into sexual slavery and shipping them to an opium den in Shanghai, or something like that. The show stopping ballad of the production is “White Slavery” for which I can find no lyrics on line and more is the pity. Perhaps when Rumi reads this he will take pity and send us annotations.
Rumi Missabu as Madame Gin Sling, “Pearls Over Shanghai” S F Thrillpeddlers revival production, Hypnodrome Theater C. 2010
Photo by David Allen
I first saw this this scrap of madness in Ross Alley, China Town, San Francisco, 1970. The Cockettes had been scheduled to open for Captain Beef Heart (God knows where, The Family Dog?) but Beef demurred and pulled the plug at the last minute, presumably when he caught sight of the miscreants or maybe he heard of their scathing reputation, but really, Captain Beef Heart??? Gimme a break. Anyway there was a news flash on KQED about a last ditch rescheduling in the aforementioned alley, where incidentally the rhythmic shuffle of mahjong dice and scratchy Chinese Opera arias were the background atmospherics, a fit setting for the proceedings.
When we got there, trailing a cloud of Maui Wowie, the local populace was, or pretended to be, oblivious to the Cockettes, an attitude requiring considerable inscrutability considering that Hibiscus, draped in piles of rainbow chiffon, shedding glitter like a Bollywood monsoon, was in the act of unfurling an equally gaudy folding fan with an eight foot wing span – not to mention Madame Gin Sling and her horde of cohorts and victims. All of this was assiduously being ignored by the crowds of Chinese going about their business. In a moment of inspired street theater, Martin Worman, never braking character assumed the role of a tour guide, snatched up some suite cases (props belonging to the soon to be abducted innocent girls) he marched the jostling pedestrians away from the “performance space” There-by allowing the production to proceed. This was the genius of The Cockettes, Theater in spite of itself. The Show is going on around you; all you gotta do is join in. Rumi continues this tradition and is showing us the way to believe in make believe.
Left to right: Rumi the Narrator, Hucklefaery Ken as Cotton Mather, James Campbell as William Stoughton, Bottom row: Bruja as Betty Parris, Roxanne Redmeat as Abigail Williams
Photo by Iory Allison
But back to “The Witches of Salem,” Rumi’s current format of production which he calls “dance and theater attractions,” consists of his dramatic narration delivered from the dignity of a podium behind which he delights us with one crazy get up. His poise and gravitas is reminiscent of Dame Edith Sitwell delivering her fabled performances at Royal Festival Hall. Rumi’s troop of electrifying performers enacts the story in stylized and hyper- intense Tableau Vivant, pantomime, and dance. The whole presentation was overwhelmingly emotional like a bomb going off in a steel box. Rumi distilled the lengthy ordeal of seventeenth century Salem witch hunting, resulting in horrific torture and execution, down to a half hour.
This comment on the human comedy left his audience gasping at what should be unbelievable religious bigotry but is all too recognizable truth in fiction. I have tried to give some inkling of the dynamics of Witches of Salem in my photo essay following my interview with the master.
Iory Allison: Your stage name has always intrigued me. I know a little bit about Rumi the Sufi poet but I am totally in the dark as to Missabu. What is the origin of both these names and what do they mean to you?
Rumi Missabu: My birth name is James Bartlett. In 1968, when Dr. Timothy Leary advocated the hippies tune in, turn on and drop out, I took his words to heart and forever more became Rumi Missabu. Reading the love poems of 13th Century Persian Sufi poet Rumi, I chose what I thought was his last name, Rumi, as my first name, only to be corrected by an actual person of Persian origin that Rumi was not his last name, but he was called that because he was from the city of Rume. Missabu, on the other hand, is the name of a messenger (or angel) of the god Arcan, the ruler of Monday in Celtic mythology. I am not certain why I chose to combine these two names together, but I required something splashier for the marquee and found James almost as common as John. About a dozen or so years ago there was an intervention which included my patron, neighbors and roommate to reconstruct my original identity. After existing by choice for over 38 years as Rumi Missabu, with nothing but a San Francisco library card, I took the plunge and resumed my original legal identity, but continued to be known as Rumi Missabu for artist endeavors. Left to right: Bruja as Betty (on bench ), Alejandro Pagan (in hood) as George Corwin, Rumi the Narator and Hucklefaery Ken as Cotton Mather (both on stage) , Donna Personna as Bridget Bishop (center stage) Roxanne Redmeat as Abigail Williams, (on bench Right) Gladiola Gladrags as Giles Cory, Sally Bonbon as Martha Corey, Alejandro Herrera as Mary Warren
Photo by Iory Allison
I A: I think I read somewhere that you grew up in L A / Hollywood. Is that so and how did that influence your eventual performing career?
R N: I was Born in Hollywood, Nov. 14, 1947 I was raised in the San Fernando Valley in a neighborhood where many stars resided and whose children were my classmates. Dick Van Dyke was the president of the PTA until he got too drunk and was replaced by comedian Steve Allen. After changing majors from art to theater, attending a 6 year Jr. /Sr. High combined; I received early training along with the likes of Sally Field and Cindy Williams. My childhood environment resembled a fake movie set. Growing up down the street from actress Jane Russell, running with Annette Funicello’s little brother Joe, considered the schools hoodlum for drinking beer and racing hotrods, and sitting in home room in front of Karen Uris whose father wrote the novel Exodus and behind me sat Carole Bagdasarian whose father was the voice of the Three Chipmunks. The whole experience of childhood seemed surreal.
I A: In the late 60’s we all wanted to join the children’s crusade and go to San Francisco and wear flowers in our hair so how did you end up in San Francisco?
R M: After graduating from LACC as a theater major, barely able to keep a job to support myself because I was consuming copious amounts of LSD while living with Cindy Williams, in a cottage behind Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I went down to Hollywood Blvd. to catch a horror double bill, high as a kite. First up, was the carnival exploitation flick “She Freaks” concerning a mid-western bimbo waitress who quits her dead end job and takes a ride with an advance man for the circus, replete with a sideshow of Freaks. The owner of the circus takes a shine to her and proposes marriage, she agrees only if he disbands the Freaks who scare her to death. He agrees, but on their wedding night he dies on top of her and she inherits the circus. Determined to get rid of the freaks, her idea backfires and collectively they take revenge, cut off both of her arms and legs and throw her into a pit of snakes, where she becomes the star attraction. This seminal cult film destroyed me and later that same day I returned home, left a five word note for Cindy which read, “I can’t take it anymore.” hopped on a Greyhound bus to Berkeley, where I had the address of three girls, certain one of them was bound to put me up.
I A: I know that Hibiscus was the iconic hippy who stuck a flower in the riffle barrel of the MP in a protest at the Pentagon but when you came across him what was he like and how did he strike you?
R M: Controversy abounds regarding if that really is Hibiscus aka George Harris III putting the flower in the rifle barrel of the National Guard on the Pentagon steps. There is a whole school of thought that it is not him at all, but instead, “Super Joel” Tornabene, who pulled a similar stunt for the media a few years after during a protest for Peoples Park in Berkeley. Both iconic photos went viral at the time. I am probably the only living survivor who was intimate with both parties. I have been questioned repeatedly regarding who it actually is in that iconic image by photographer Bernie Boston, originally on assignment for the Boston Globe, which later appeared in The Best of Life Magazine. As all parties; Boston, Hibiscus and Joel are deceased, with respect to the families, I have decided to take the answer to the grave. The actual answer would confound and astound.
Trangela Lansbury as Tituba Photo by Iory Allison
R M continues: Hibiscus was like Spanky in The Little Rascals with his extraordinary charisma and “Let’s put on a show” attitude. You wanted to please him; you wanted to be a part of it because he made it seem like so much fun and effortless. I like to say we were a bunch of freaks who came together like magnets. Hibiscus, our founder, recruited each and every one of us in any number of places including; on the bus, Haight Street, in Golden Gate Park, at the Capri Bar in North Beach and at the Pagoda Palace during the midnight movies before it became our home. Hibiscus simply asked us to be in a show, there were no auditions to be a Cockette. It was that easy. He would simply come up with a theme once a month and basically no script. He would announce that we were going to do an all Southern show called “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” with songs and characters from all of those put together or a faerie tale extravaganza with characters from different stories all coming together on psychedelics.
I A: Who were your mentors / inspirations in theater?
R M: Only recently I have concluded that I have become a mentor, but cite many who came before me in theater and films including my contemporaries; Mario Montez, Chet Helms, Charles Ludlam, The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company, Julian Beck and Judith Malina of The Living Theater, Marta Minijun. I have been highly influenced by many muses in literature, cinema and beyond including Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Marcel Carne, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Federico Fellini, Jean Renior, Actresses Ana Magnani, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Jeanne Moreau, Grayson Hall, Elaine Stritch… to cite only a few.
I A: What was your original ambition as a performer?
R M: Growing up in Hollywood I certainly rebelled against the whole star system and realized quite early I could never fit in, nor would I want to. Instead, I chose to focus on a more alternative and avant-garde path. This was decided by my instructors early on when they told me I could only play fops or dandies because I was effeminate and walked funny. I must have taken their advice to heart because I spent the next few years as a male actress going from Disney (Blackbeard’s Ghost) to soft core porn (Elevator Girls in Bondage), but never identified myself as a drag queen per say. The Cockettes were beyond drag and I like to say “We were to drag, as Niagara is to wet.” Had I stayed and pursued the L.A. lifestyle I would have probably ended up today selling Boniva, a supplement for brittle bones after winning two Oscars like my contemporary and fellow classmate Sally Field.
I A: Have you been able to fulfill your artistic visions?
R M: Only recently I have begun to march to my own drummer directing, and narrating what I call ‘dance and theater attractions’ exclusively performed in NYC each April and October. Borrowing from fables, faeries tales, fact and fiction, recent shows include, The Crystal Ball, Keeping the Tigers Away, The Questioning of John Rykener, and The Wisdom of the Sands, The Last Days of Pompeii and The Witches of Salem. These efforts indeed are fulfilling my artistic ambitions and providing a fitting legacy, of the culmination of all my work.
I A: Why were you attracted to noncommercial theater? Was this a political ideal of yours?
R M: I have addressed this question previously, but feel it was the radical press who politicized ‘The Cockettes’ when frankly; we were just out to have a party. While the shows were vehicles to get boyfriends. So, I wouldn’t read more into it than it actually was.
I A: What actors / singers / dancers / etc. are you working with now, Left or right coasts who you admire and add the intent and fulfillment of your art?
Left to Right; Trangela Lansbury, Fussy Lo Mein, Alejandro Pagan (hooded), Darcey Leonard (in noose), Sally BonBon (with big cross), Hucklefaery Ken (behind her), Donna Personna, Agosto Machado (kneeling), Alejandro Herrera (in mask), Steven Menendez, Gladiola Gladrags, Hayley Nystrom, Bruja, and Roxanne Redmeat.
Photo by Iory Allison
R M: I prefer using mostly non-actors, working out of there comfort zone and am known for
casting against type, offering an opportunity to both young and old to manifest their own artistic vision. I maintain a revolving troupe of dedicated individuals from both coasts which I am happy to showcase whenever the opportunity arises. Think of it as like a madcap chef stirring up a cosmic stew, whose ingredients are magic and tribal anarchy, a Cockette aesthetic I try to keep alive even today.
I A: What sticks out in your mind as a really satisfying show / character / performance that you have given?
R M: In 2012, I auditioned for the role of Jacques Roux in Marat-Sade, only because I was determined to play a man after appearing in female rolls over and over again, earlier in Thrillpedler Rivals of the Cockettes original shows. Confined to a straight jacket, I excelled in the role to much acclaim for a 3-week run at the Brava Theater in S.F. The final two performances of that show were the most likely the most satisfying of my career.
I A: What do you fell about applause and how does it make you feel?
R M: Applause merely validates a recognition of my efforts but it is never expected or even anticipated.
I A: What part have you not played yet that you yearn to develop?
R M: At this juncture, I am more interested in producing and directing than performing. As I find being behind the scenes, so to speak, more satisfying and rewarding. I will continue to accept film assignments as they transpire, but my passion is now firmly entrenched producing my dance attractions in NYC.
I A: I believe that you slipped off the charts and were “on the lam” for a period, what made you hustle up the chutzpa to make a comeback?
R M: I was most thrilled to reinstate my original identity, because for over three decades, I had no passport, therefore I could not travel and had basically given up the idea of doing so. Once I became myself again I immediately high-tailed it on tour to Oslo, London, Amsterdam in 2007 and later to Paris in 2012.
I A: In “last Days of Pompeii” at Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library you narrated the performance with your own script. Have you published your other written scripts? Are they at the LCPAL collections and can the general public access them there?
R M: No, they remain unpublished, but the original drafts have been made available to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. http://archives.nypl.org/the/23269
Lee Mentley aka The Princess of Castro St as William Griggs, Bruja as Betty Parris (back to picture), Roxanne Redmeat as Abigail Williams, Fussy Lo Mein as Samuel Parris
I A: Why “Witches of Salem”? Is there a message in the show that resonates with the world drama of today?
R M: My message regarding this particular production was that witches disappeared, but witch hunting in America did not. Each generation must learn the lessons of history or risk repeating its mistakes. The witch trials were an example of hysteria people can experience when faced with fear. In addition, casting is always a big concern, that is, who is available and who is willing to commit to the project, as to which message I can share with the world.
I A: How did you connect with Judson Memorial Church Theater and what other shows have you done there?
R M: A friend introduced me to the gay Minister of Arts, Micah Bucey @ JMC who had admired my earlier work and was a fan of the Cockettes. In the Fall of 2014 I presented my first piece at JMC (Keeping the Tigers Away) based on a collection of six Sufi stories. The following year I returned (The Wisdom of the Sands), based on a collection of five parables from around the world, including Tibet, Nigeria, France, the U.K. and the U.S.A.
I A: What Show/performance piece are you planning for the future?
R M: I am always considering a number of projects in rotation and among them include (Angel’s Egg) from a Japanese animated film, (Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad) from a ghost story by medieval scholar M.R. James and (The Demon Pond) from a Kabuki story.
I A: Please add any nugget of wisdom or pithy comment you feel your audience might benefit from.
R M: I not quite ready to give up the ghost, I will continue to keep the Cockette spirit alive, to the best of my abilities, with every opportunity I am presented with.
Rumi at the end of the show singing, “hello in There” accompanied by David Lewis