“Thirty-two died. No one cared. Forty years later, this is their story.”
In a city steeped in history, tales of heroism, triumph and love abound. This weekend, as New Orleans joins the nation in celebrating Gay Pride, the story of an act of arson that killed 32 people takes center stage.
“UPSTAIRS: A Dramatic Musical” opens at 8 p.m. Thursday at the 150-seat Café Istanbul theater in the New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave., and runs through June 24.
It’s a New Orleans world premiere marking the 40th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire, which killed 32 patrons of the gay bar in 1973.
Wayne Self, a playwright and composer, wrote the score and script for “UPSTAIRS,” which he describes as a “musical drama or tragedy, with some comedic scenes.”
While it’s based on historical fact, the limitations of a two-act play required tight focus using five actors and New Orleans-inspired music, including jazz, gospel and Caribbean-influenced ballads, Self said.
Local stage icon Jeffery Roberson, who performs as Varla Jean Merman and is a longtime friend, also appears in the play, Self said.
Self, who grew up in the 1980s in rural, conservative Natchitoches, recalls clandestine road trips to bars in New Orleans, where a young gay man could be himself. Unbeknownst to family and friends back home, Self blended into the gay community in New Orleans.
Years later, Self was studying the history of the Metropolitan Community Church, which was founded in 1968 and has long been a spiritual touchstone for the LGBT community.
It was then Self read about Sunday, June 24, 1973, when patrons at the Upstairs Lounge, located on the second floor of a building at Iberville and Chartres streets in the French Quarter, were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising — the riots in New York by gays and lesbians against anti-gay police crackdowns and widespread discrimination.
Many of the Upstairs patrons that day were local MCC members, including pastor Bill Larson and assistant pastor Mitch Mitchell. Self said a jazz pianist played tunes for the 70 or so in the bar.
Two men had been ejected following an altercation, Self learned, and one is believed to have returned about 8 p.m., sprayed the interior wooden staircase with lighter fluid, and ignited a fire.
The bartender led 35 people to safety out an unmarked back door, but barred windows blocked escape.
In 17 minutes, it was over: 29 people died in the fire, three died later from burns, 15 were injured. News photos published after the fire included the image of Larson’s body caught between bars in a window.
Because most of the deceased were gay — although a mother and her two sons were also killed — many local churches refused to allow burial or memorial services, Self said.
Four of the men killed were buried in a potter’s field, their bodies left unclaimed; three of those were never identified, he added.
“This was an act of mass violence perpetrated by one person, a person who was never charged,” Self said. Over a five-year period of writing the play, “I wanted to produce a work that reflects the stories of heroism, triumph and love. Yes, it was a terrible, a horrific thing that happened, but I wanted to focus on the victims and their stories.
“I’m not a historian and this isn’t a documentary or a work of nonfiction. This is based on the stories of these 32 people and about the crimes and discrimination committed against the LGBT community then — and today,” Self said.
“It’s a difficult subject to tackle, and I had to do a lot of soul-searching. I hope when people see it they understand my heart is in the right place. That’s why the play is being staged for the first time here in New Orleans. It’s a city that means so much to me.”