We’re Funny That Way

Kate Rigg, Toronto's number one daughter, returns home and woks tall in queer comedy fest


kate’s chink-o-rama part of the

we’re funny that way lesbian & gay

comedy festival Friday and Saturday

(May 4 and 5), 9 pm, Buddies in Bad

Times (12 Alexander). 416-975-8555.

Rating: NNNNN


new york city — kate rigg wants to be entertained. “I like a floor- show,” she says. “A go-go dancer, a drag queen, a stripper, a trapeze artist. I once saw a woman sew the lips of her pussy together with a needle and thread for $50. Highly entertaining. I saw a guy cut his name into his chest with a razor blade.”I love that shit. It’s fierce.”

We’re sitting in a tiny East Village drag joint called Bar d’O. Being entertained. No needle and thread, mind you, but it’ll clearly do. Rigg, the most fearless, talented and versatile comedian of colour since Whoopi Goldberg and John Leguizamo, is being serenaded by a tall, sleek and suited chanteuse named Raven O, a combination of Kathleen Turner and Eartha Kitt.

Raven O has dedicated Etta James’s song At Last to Rigg, and she glows and blows him an air kiss, speechless for the first time tonight. The song soars, soars, soars and then lands.

” …and you are there — at last,” sings Raven, throwing an arm in Rigg’s direction, to rapturous applause and a crumpled tip or two.

At last. Words that sum up Rigg’s life right now. At last the Jarvis Collegiate grad is living and thriving in the only city that’s busy enough for her. At last she’s given up writing Canada Council grants and is doing what she wants, on her own terms. At last she’s making the right connections.

For us, too, at last Rigg is bringing her clever comedy material to Toronto. Kate’s Chink-O-Rama, a wise and hilarious send-up of Asian stereotypes, plays the We’re Funny That Way Lesbian & Gay Comedy Festival this Friday and Saturday.

The Bar d’O visit, it turns out, is just one stop in my 12-hour outing with Rigg. She’s making sure I’m entertained, too.

In the afternoon, I catch a shortened and sanitized version of Chink-O-Rama — the title’s a gentle homage to Leguizamo’s hit, Spic-O-Rama — at the Museum of Natural History, where Rigg and a trio of part-Asian dancers perform two sets for museum-goers: families with strollers, gay couples, Asian families, curious passersby.

“I’m used to performing at, like, 2 in the morning,” she tells us.

A few flinch at the first mention of the word “chink,” but nearly everyone stays, and by the end we’ve laughed and thought about Nike sweatshop workers, Vietnamese war brides, camera-toting Japanese tourists and every other lotus blossom, kung fu-kicking Susie Wong stereotype floating in the cultural ether. All sung to disco anthems like I Will Survive and Turning Japanese.

“It’s like In Living Colour with an Asian… slant,” says Rigg during a post-show talk, pausing so we’ll appreciate the pun.

“I haven’t had any major problems yet,” she says, when someone from the audience asks about censorship. “Although I am going to Canada soon, which is a very very politically correct land.” Is she looking at me? Is she remembering her teenage years? “We’ll see what happens.”

She then blurts that she’s going to be the first-ever Asian-American Medea on Broadway.

“Give me a few years,” she says. “OK, give me 10.”

Not impossible. It’s only a handful of years since Rigg produced her one-person show M/Other/land at the Tarragon, and now she’s popping up in hit shows like Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters and Paul Rudnick’s The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, in which she understudied Lea Delaria, who’s since become a close friend. No, not that kind of close friend. Rigg, who’s recovering from a relationship, is single.

“My sex life right now is with my art,” she says. “A lot of my friends are married, baby-ed, housed and projected. That’s not the life I want right now, but I may wake up one day 60 and homeless, with no mutual fund. I’m frightened that the artist’s life, the thing I love the most, may kill me.”

Kim Awon, one of the Chink-o-Rama dancers, met Rigg at Juilliard in the mid-90s, where they studied acting, and says everyone there knew she would eventually get what she wanted.

At Juilliard, Rigg was frustrated, the lowest point being when she was cast as a black male student with a single line in a play. Pissed off, she decided to go gender-fuck with the role — drag is her main aesthetic, she tells me — by looking kinda like Julia Sweeney’s SNL character, Pat. A year later she was cast as a French maid and played the tiny role as an expatriate Japanese woman in full geisha makeup and blond wig.

The seeds for Chink-O-Rama were planted.

Onstage and off, Rigg is fearless, with a New York swagger and no trace of a Canadian accent (she even pronounces the second “t” in Toronto). Maybe it’s the example of her fierce Indonesian aunt, who was more of a friend and soulmate than was her actual mother. Or maybe it’s just experience.

“When you get browbeaten at places like Juilliard and told that you can’t do something, you have a choice. You can either say, “You’re right, I can’t,’ or you can do it anyway. I’m doing it anyway.”

Earlier that night, Rigg gets me into an off-Broadway musical about pee called Urinetown. Then she disappears to chat up one of the cast, a friend. “He was in the original cast of Sweeney Todd,” she tells me. “He’s a freak.” She wants him for her musical based on Wilde’s Dorian Gray. She also wants Raven. Delaria, already signed on, has made phone calls to various stars.

“Oh, we’re meeting friends later,” she tells me. “Are you OK with that? Michael was in The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, a big off-Broadway hit, and he just played a continuing character in The Practice,” she says. “Carrie starred in The Tempest opposite Patrick Stewart and just finished a play with Mercedes Ruehl.”

Michael gets recognized wherever we go.

“If he gets Emmy-nominated, he’d better invite me to the party,” jokes Rigg in the cordoned-off VIP area at a swank bar. Drinks are free. The lighting is great. I’m impressed, yet mildly bored.

A pretty woman who works for Ralph Lauren recognizes Michael and says she wants to give him free clothes. Carrie pulls his suspenders playfully, signalling for him to come back. He ignores her.

“That’s great,” says Kate.”It’s why we do TV. So we can get the recognition and money to do the stuff we want to do.”

Kate herself has just signed to an improv show on Nickelodeon called Life Game. She stirs her non-alcoholic beverage as if some secret rests at the bottom of the glass. The club’s manager, another close friend, tells Kate she was stood up by someone tonight. Kate whispers something into her ear.

Slightly woozy, I get up to go. It’s late, but not too late. We leave the club, hail a cab and Kate sprawls out in the back seat. Exhausted.

“Oh, Glenn, did you have a good time?” she asks. “We didn’t go cruising for you. Sorry.”

“That’s OK,” I say. “I kinda just started a relationship anyway.”

“Yeah? What does he do?” she asks.

Her cellphone, which might as well be surgically sewn onto her ear, rings. It’s her friend from the bar calling to tell her she didn’t get stood up after all. It was a misunderstanding.

“That’s fierce,” says Kate. “Bye.” She pushes a button on her phone, closes her eyes and enjoys the ride home.

glenns@nowtoronto.com

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