Reuben Kaye opens The Butch is Back wearing a sparkling-pink jacket and waistcoat with a nearly-too-wide pannier hoop-skirt that reveals perfectly high-cut black pants and cummerbund. As he sings ‘Pynk’, Janelle Monae’s 2018 feminine and feminist anthem about the pinks that unite humanity, the comfort, or fear, of the queer space is defined. But what follows becomes a blistering and empowering exploration of gender and masculinity.
Kaye left Melbourne for the UK about a decade ago. Those of us who saw him in the late 2000s knew that he was destined for far more than cramped stages. He was magnificent. And that magnificence has expanded so much that containment is no longer possible and everyone who sees him may never get the glitter out of their hearts.
With his live band, swishing microphone horse tails (what could they mean!?) and a presence that demands undivided attention, Kaye would be sold out and gushed over if all he did were sing with a voice you feel in your guts and tell outrageously blue jokes. But cabaret was never meant to be safe, conforming or easy.
His early list of why the world is broken – it’s too long to begin to quote – should become the policy list of most governments. But his anger and frustration at the seemingly obvious leads into reflections on the ongoing trauma of being labelled something negative before you even know what it means.
Returning to the Cure’s 1979 ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, he tells his story of growing up white and privileged in Melbourne and of coming out as a teenager to his Jewish family, with their own generational trauma. This deeply personal account is told with understanding, love and high-camp impersonations of his mum, as he also reminds us that a generation of queer father figures and role models died in the 1980s and '90s.
There’s a universal truth found in personal stories. Dropping barriers allows for connection and recognition. While he lets us know why his make-up, with all the eyelashes, is not a mask, there’s space for even his most resistant listener to break for a 14-year-old sitting in his dad’s car – and for his dad.
There’s not a moment of The Butch is Back that isn’t structured to create empathy. The audience hands over their emotional control with joy as he takes us into the dark and shows us that the glimmer of light is really a place so damn rainbow bright, diverse and accepting that finding your way to this world is inevitable. It’s hard to know what tears are for him, yourself, your friends or simply because you’re laughing so much that you’re using your spare face mask to wipe away snot.
Or simply go for a story that will let you smile knowingly every time you think of that church buying Melbourne’s beloved Festival Hall.