Dirty John’s, a fan favorite improv group in Tampa Bay, will take the stage during St Pete Pride with “Gays R Us.”
The vaudeville style celebration will lampoon everything from Florida’s attacks on drag to the state’s laws targeting the transgender community. John Huls, founder of Dirty John’s, says his improv troupe spares no spiritual expense. Especially after Governor Ron DeSantis signed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills into law ahead of Pride month.
“We’ve always been queer-centric,” Huls says. “More than half of us [in the cast] are LGBTQ. Queer humor has gotten me through these 65 years being on a very hetero-planet and I love giving back to an audience with comedic activism where you can feel as if you’re part of what’s happening. Only the theater can give that to you.”
“Gays R Us,” scheduled to perform at The Studio at 620 in St. Petersburg June 22-24, has four stage platforms. Each represents a different sketch. The show’s 11-person cast, which includes drag queens and drag kings, will open the show by performing a mashup of LGBTQ+ anthems.
Huls says the cast includes people from all walks of life. One of the show’s sketches, “Straight to Gay,” was written by the cast’s “token-straight guy” Will Lorenzen along with heterosexual cast member Charissa Anderson.
Lorenzo says it’s based off a character who’s being raised by two gay men, one who doesn’t understand why he’s attracted to women. It’s a spoof on how some think children raised by gay parents will also be gay.
“It’s funny because there is an element to that story,” Lorenzo says. “I grew up with a dad who was a puppet designer and set designer, so I had a lot of gay people in my life. If grooming were a thing then I’d be gay. The government we have now seems to think we need to be free from freedom.”
Cast member Claire Selius says being queer isn’t new, and “neither is keeping it a secret.” Selius shares a true lesbian love story from the 16th century using puppets in the upcoming show. “When we’re highlighting a beautiful love story from the 1700s, and people in 2023 can still relate to the shame they experienced, something major needs to change,” she says.
Children expressing who they are and what they feel isn’t new either. Cat Lim tells a story about having a crush on her Barbie in her standup segment. Lim says that for years she felt embarrassed after learning she liked girls by playing with Barbies, a childhood secret she kept to herself.
“A friend of mine and I used to play with Barbies and we did what a lot of kids were doing — have them kiss and other intimacy,” Lim says. The experience elevated some of her sexual feelings.
“I felt that these feelings were probably inappropriate, and I knew it wasn’t something I could openly talk about,” she explains. “I shared it with my friend and she did not reciprocate those feelings, so it was kind of traumatizing. I realized later in life that it was a hilarious story.”
Lim thinks a lot of people can relate to her experience, and that’s one reason why she likes doing standup. By working with Huls, she learned that good comedy is personal.
Two sisters who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses are also part of the show, sharing their true story of separation by religion. Avery and Sarah Belyeu will detail being disowned by their family when Avery made the choice to live authentically as trans at 30 years old.
The story is presented as a brief vignette into two perspectives, growing up with a trans sibling and living as herself.
“Our purpose is to promote understanding and love,” Sarah says. “Trans people are you and me — just a more beautiful iridescent color in the spectrum of humanity.”
The Belyeu family dates back to the 1830s in Florida, Avery says. The sisters feel centuries later that their family, including their parents, have held onto a stagnant mindset, preventing love and acceptance.
“Very conservative people,” Avery explains. “My sister and I were specifically raised as Jehovah Witnesses, and we were raised in a town that was very culturally Southern, Lake City. We were in a religion that is unabashedly transphobic and homophobic.”
Loving someone for who they are would get you kicked out of the church, your family and your community. Avery explains that she did what was best for her at the time and came out as a gay man at 23.
“Every trans person’s journey is different,” Avery notes. “I came out as gay in my 20s. I had never heard of trans people and I didn’t know what trans people were growing up in a conservative family and small town. I didn’t have access to information about what it was to be trans.”
She always knew that gay wasn’t exactly the right word for her, saying it kind of fit but it didn’t fit completely. She began meeting trans people in her 20s which helped her discover that she closely identified with them.
Sarah says they were always surrounded by love, but were also constantly aware that if they chose not to follow the Jehovah Witness faith, their family and friends would no longer be permitted to have any contact with them. Eventually they chose their own happiness.
Sarah has moved to Tampa since then and started her life as a restaurant entrepreneur, while Avery calls Dallas home. Avery’s upcoming visit to St. Petersburg will be her last visit to Florida for quite a while, citing the state’s anti-trans laws.
The sisters’ story is likely the most serious delivery of the sketches in “Gays R Us.” Others are fictional but inspired by the political climate in Florida, featuring a drag queen underground railroad.
Two characters — Daisy Shadowcreek, played by Jay Hoff and Shasta Velvet, played by Ryan Hill — will take audiences on a drag queen’s journey as they try to escape the laws of DeSantis by going underground. Shadowcreek is Velvet’s drag mother.
Hoff spoke to Watermark in character.
“We are here to fight and we’re not running away,” the actor said. “I had a ticket for that train and we are not running away. Our community needs us. Our state needs us. The world needs us.”
“Gays R Us” plays June 22-24 at 8 p.m. at The Studio @620, located at 620 First Ave. South in St. Petersburg and tickets are $15. Learn more at TheStudioat620.org.