For the first time ever, Raven O -- the legendary, often X-rated performer and MC -- will be performing in his own one-man show at the Bleecker Street Theatre on February 23 and March 2nd, hosted by The Box's Simon Hammerstein. The 48-year-old Hawaiian native, known best as a dynamic dancer and talented jazz singer, will explore his tumultuous past in an unscripted, improvised show colored with a careful selection of jazz numbers and his own irrepressible stage presence. PAPERMAG had the luck of chatting with Raven about his evolution as a New York City performer, including his run at the legendary Bar d'O alongside his best friend and mentor, the incomparable Joey Arias.
What is the show about?
The show is basically me revealing my life. It's basically improv: I started to script it but then I thought it felt too rigid. Unless it's a scripted play whatever I do is improv. There has to be a looseness to it -- more than anything I'm a jazz singer, and in jazz you have to have this looseness, this ability to switch gears.
How did you first become involved in performance?
In Hawaiian culture, you grow up singing. There was no alphabet until the white man came and gave us one, so we told every story with songs and dances and chants. In my family everybody sings and plays instruments--it came natural to me: just throw me on stage.
Was there ever a time you weren't performing?
No! I always asked to do chorus as a kid but I was always I was cast as a lead. I just wanted to do dancing and singing in the background, I thought that was really cool. But I never ever could get it -- people always say, why do you want to be in the chorus? And I would say, 'I think it's cool.' And people would say, 'it's not cool! Being the lead is cool!'
Why were you so opposed to being the center of attention?
I think it has to do with being Hawaiian. In my culture we don't try to stand out, it's kind of frowned upon, but I could never blend. I always had this contradiction about myself: I wanted to be normal, but special. Like, I didn't want to be noticed but I'd dye my hair in all of these different colors -- okay, I'm a walking contradiction.
Where was the first place you ever performed in New York?
Limelight was my first gig in New York as a performer -- Malcome Kelso, who was the artistic director, hired me and Patt Briggs from Psychotica as the first go-go boys. It was a week after its official opening but I can't remember when the hell that was [Ed: it was 1983].
Is that how did you meet Joey Arias?
Yeah. Joey says we met at Limelight but I don't remember since my
memory is totally bad. At the time I had hair down to my ass -- I looked
like a girl. I was always trying out new lifestyles and so I was trying
to live as a pseudo-tranny creature thing. His story was that I was a
really nasty cunt, which I can totally believe.
When did you start working together?
About four years later I get a phone call from him and he said he was doing a show and was hoping I would choreograph it. At the time I was doing a lot of choreographing -- I did a Jody Watley video, I did all these kind of high-end videos and commercials -- and so I was like, yeah sure. Joey was doing a show at the supper club, so he asked me to be a dancer, but then he asked me to do it in drag, so I was like, oh okay, it pays, whatever! Joey and I have been kind of attached at the hip since then.
And then afterwards you guys had your legendary run at Bar d'O. But how did you get involved with Cirque du Soleil and Zumanity?
Joey was a good friend of Andrew Watson, the tour director of Saltimbanco at the time. About 10 or 15 years ago they would sometimes fly Joey and me out and do late-night versions of the show, kind of an R- or X-rated Cirque show at the local clubs wherever they were on tour. That was the seed that planted Zumanity, It was great, not like a regular show but more edgy. And it wasn't that hard, just 10 shows a week.
10 shows a week is not hard?!
No! It's not hard! At Bar d'O we did four to five sets a night. Start at 11, end at four in the morning and then I'd go out later and party the rest of the next day and do it all over again! At one point Joey and I, we were doing our show, working seven nights a week in three different locations.
What was it like to live among all of these circus folks?
Let me tell you something: nobody, but nobody can come close to partying like circus people. They party and then the next day they get up and go on a trapeze -- it's totally insane. They make rock stars look like pussies.
Rock stars get to crash. No matter what, the gymnasts have to get up in the morning and train, then do two to three shows. I'm talking hanging 90 feet in the air with no net --let's see a rock star do that! They have to get up and shoot fire after partying all night. I fit right in! My own background doing drag stuff prepared me for that. Being in drag is just being a modern-day clown.
You've mentioned that in the past you struggled with drugs and personal relationships.
When I first moved here I didn't have any friends and was homeless for a long time -- I was ashamed, I didn't want to ask anybody for help. I was basically a junkie, I was going through all sorts of emotions and trying to come to terms with my identity. But during the whole time I was still performing in nightclubs and bars and measly little cabarets.
Is that turbulent era a focus of your Bleecker Street show?
One of the things that would keep me from jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge back then was knowing that I had a show to do. All of these incredible people would be there, and a lot of them would give me so much love on the stage.
In a way this show big gift to all of those people who kept me alive, because I should have been dead. Performers are kind of vessel, at least, I know am -- it's the audience that actually fills me up. I put them before anything else.
Hosted by Simon Hammerstein, "Raven O: One Night With You" plays at the Bleecker Street Theater (45 Bleecker St.) on February 23 and March 2 at 8 p.m.