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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Cabaret Tito

Mexico City, July 2003: I have three companions this Friday night in the centre of the city: Adriana from Ecuador, a lawyer with a loud voice and dark orange hair who insists she is at the head of every demonstration that demands women's rights, Livia, a journalist from So Paulo, Brazil, in her late twenties, tall and thin, Rebecca, also Brazilian, dumpy and middle-aged, director of communications in a family planning organisation. We have been colleagues in a seminar on sexual health which closed earlier in the day; now, in the upbeat mood that only a good meal and several glasses of wine can instil, we are looking for the Cabaret Tito - a pun on "Little Cabaret" and the owner's name - and the promise of a two hour drag show.

We are in Calle Londres, a long narrow street thick with parked cars and the shadows of trees. We pass a disco, several restaurants, and women's striptease. Spartacus, the gay man's bible, claims that this is the gay part of town, but we have seen no frivolity. Finally we find the number we want, a mall of closed and dark antique shops. "Is there a bar in here?" Adriana asks an urchin squatting against a wall. "Upstairs," he says. We walk in, following a young man in fashionable black supporting on each arm a young woman tottering upwards in short skirt and high heels.

Two flights later, Rebecca regains her breath and a pair of short and stocky men in dinner jackets wave us through an anonymous door into a large, square room. Couples and groups sit back drinking beer and cocktails as a guitarist, trumpeter and drummer play traditional Iberian laments. An unctous waiter finds us seats, takes our order of beer and pina colada. The applause is loud, the musicians withdraw and a new act is announced.

There is something odd about the scene. We were expecting attempts at Brazilian glamour or La Cage aux Folles, with glittering dcor and flashing lights, and handsome men in sparkling gold or powder blue providing the backdrop to magnificently robed queens. Instead, the next act is only a single middle-aged man in an old black dinner-jacket telling jokes. We have, it seems stepped back half a century into A Touch of Evil. Too far south for Orson Welles and too prosaic for Marlene Dietrich, but definitely Charlton Heston territory. In a few moments, I suspect, at a table not far from ours, one man's whispered comment will insult another's masculinity, threats will be uttered and guns drawn. Pleading by friends and diplomacy by the maitre d' will restore peace but a day, a week or a lifetime from now vengeance will be exacted in an anonymous assassination.

The audience laugh loudly. I smile politely, although neither I nor the Brazilians can follow the music-hall patter. Adriana, meanwhile, is glowering. After a few minutes a throwaway remark that I do understand leads me to suspect the jokes are less than complimentary to women or men of a homosexual orientation.

Adriana gestures to the waiter. There is a whispered conversation, shared briefly with Rebecca, then we all stand up and head for the door. On the landing in the warm night the situation becomes clear. We have been trespassers in the temple of Masculine Heterosexuality. The Cabaret Tito is a smaller affair that hides further back in the same warren of a building. "Estpido" mutters Adriana, although it is not certain whether she is referring to the lack of signs or the ignorance of the child who pointed us in this direction.

We climb another stair, run-down and narrow. At the top a trio of sixteen year old boys suggest anything but heterosexuality or sophistication. The doorman in t-shirt and slacks looks at matronly Rebecca, wonders whether Livia and I are an item and asks dubiously if we know what sort of place this is. Yes, we say cheerfully and he lets us in. At the box-office, under the eyes of half a dozen curious youths, we confuse English, Portuguese and Spanish as we try to pay for each other, waving the unfamiliar local currency in and out of each other's hands. Finally, honour satisfied, we enter.

The poorly-lit room is dark, half-empty. We find seats on low stools not far from the stage where skinny boys in their early to mid teens disco line dance. It reminds me briefly of a similar scene in Bangkok ten years previously, where the youths dressed in expensive fashions paraded for clients two or three times their age. Here the boys are poorly but cleanly dressed but they dance for themselves while the audience, our party excepted, are equally young.

The drinks arrive; my attention wanders. The walls are lined with quilt panels, dedicated to Enrique, Mario and others who have died of AIDS. And in the audience I see among the boys girls of a similar age. Whether they were born girls, I am not sure and am too polite to stare or ask. But whatever sex they are, they are clinging to the boys and the boys are clinging to them with an intensity that suggests that to let go would be to lose each other forever. The four of us in our forties may be as out of place as we were in the previous bar, but here, I imagine, we are not strangers but benevolent parents keeping an eye on our youngsters, pleased that they have found security and perhaps love.

Half an hour passes. The tables gradually fill up, the dance music comes to an end, the already dim light darkens further. At last two men in indeterminate Elizabethan costume step onto the stage and begin a rap with the refrain Shakespeare  -  La Obra Completa. Shakespeare  -  La Obra Completa. We are to be honoured with the complete works of Shakespeare. In Spanish. And in drag. I wonder briefly if four hundred years ago the Stratford Bard envisaged such a future for his works.

Queen Elizabeth - Tito himself - enters, saving money on costumes by poking his head through a rough rendering of one of the famous portraits. She addresses her subjects in a strong English accent that makes me cringe to think my Spanish probably sounds the same. I understand about half of what she says - the fact that the humour is predictable does not make it any less funny. From Elizabeth we move onto the handkerchief scene from Othello, with a handsome young man from the audience lured onto the stage to take the title role. Every so often he stops laughing often enough to repeat his lines more or less accurately. The next sketch is Queen Lear, in an accent too difficult for me to follow. My mind wanders to reflect on the fact that this production does not stray far from the original, given that Shakespeare had boys dressed as women wooing other men, or boys dressed as women pretending to be men wooing other boys dressed as women. A homosexual's and pederast's dream.

The show moves on. Romeo and Juliet is reduced to the Nurse hanging up washing and a long monologue on safer sex. A barely-recognisable Midsummer Night's Dream, with all the half-dozen cast on stage in a variety of costumes and genders, ends the entertainment. Eventually, the stage lights go down, the room lights come up.

Only now do I see that the transformation that has taken place. The teenagers who surrounded us at the beginning of the evening have disappeared, some perhaps to the streets, others probably to parents who have no idea how they spend their time. For both, and especially for those who daily confront the challenge of being effeminate young men in a society that, although changing, is still heavily machista, this little theatre must be a haven.

We are surrounded by young and middle-aged adults, overwhelmingly heterosexual. At the table next to us a grey haired professorial type with a long grey beard and spreading gut professor holds court among friends. Livia asks about the dark-haired high-cheeked young man behind me. I lean over and draw him into our conversation, but neither she nor I has the energy or courage to ask him if he likes women. Adriana persuades me to dance. By the time we return the young man has gone and Livia, with the wisdom of the fox cursing grapes, is only slightly disappointed. Rebecca, meanwhile, is sitting bolt upright. A few minutes ago a woman half her age came over, put her hand on Rebecca's arm and asked if she was single. Our companion, who like the rest of us considers herself an expert on sexuality, thinks she is flattered and wonders why she feels threatened.

It's two o'clock in the morning and half the customers have gone. I'd like to stay up, to drink a little more and talk to others, to find the next bar, but we are all middle-aged and tired and I have a long flight back to London tomorrow. We get up, look around us and walk to the door. At the top of the stairs a boy smiles at me and I wink back. Another time, I think, another life and we might meet again.

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