Bette Bourne has no delusions of grandeur.
“I’m an old whore. I go where I’m paid,” the celebrated British actor and gay rights activist says.
Recently, he took his solo show “A Life in Three Acts” to Turin, Italy where he received standing ovations. Now the London-based performer has come to Washington to share his story at the Kennedy Center through Saturday.
Adapted from private conversations between Bourne and hot playwright Mark Ravenhill (“Shopping and Fucking”), the award-winning work hits all the bases in Bourne’s never-a-dull-moment life: post-war childhood in Britain, life in a Notting Hill drag commune during the 1970s, time spent with his world-famous BLOOLIPS gay theater troupe, etc.
“In one evening with an intermission, we move from when I’m very young to now that I’m very old,” says Bourne, 71. “I sing a few songs, do some little dances, tell a couple filthy stories and generally misbehave, all in fabulous drag. But this show is not about female impersonation. It’s my life.”
Bourne is known as both a performer (from Edinburgh Fringe to Royal Shakespeare Company) and a key figure in Britain’s gay liberation movement. But his introduction to activism almost never happened. As a working actor in the ’60s and early ’70s, he had to think of his career. Being political wasn’t an option. Then one evening, his then-boyfriend (“a gorgeous Australian”) returned home from a meeting where gays and lesbians had gathered to discuss fighting for their rights.
“I thought he was mad. I wanted nothing to do with it,” Bourne says. “But then he told me he’d seen a lot of gorgeous guys at the meeting. Well, I was there the next week.”
‘A Life in Three Acts’
Oct. 28 – 30
The Kennedy Center
“Prior to the ’70s, things had been really bad for gay people,” Bourne says. “We felt genuinely ripped off and were angry. Soon we were shouting our tits off on Oxford Street and carrying signs that read ‘We’re the people your mother warned you about.’”
Eventually, Bourne began to express his ire differently. He sort of lost interest in the mainstream movement and instead joined a group of friends in forming a drag commune in London.
“We lived in our fabulous frocks 24-7. It was gorgeous,” he says. “The police, of course, hated us. I was dragged to court on several occasions. The judge would ask me to remove my hat. I’d say I can’t. It goes with the shoes.”
During this same time, Bourne changed his name from Peter to Bette.
In the past, Bourne has won over New York audiences with his campy, gender-bending BLOOLIPS’ production “Lust in Space,” and playing Quentin Crisp in “Resident Alien.” He recalls a backstage visit from Eva Gabor. The late actress shared some advice [Bourne’s accent switches from British to thick Hungarian]: “You’re in America now. Get the money.”
Like the Gabor sisters, Bourne also had a mother who helped to advance his career.
“When I first appeared on stage at age 4, my mother was in the audience, her bosom swelling with pride. She would have preferred that I grow up to be Michael Caine or Roger Moore rather than a drag queen. She hated it. But we did get together again before she died. I talk about that in the show.
“The early days of gay liberation were passionate and euphoric for all of us. For the first time queers and dykes were talking about things for the first time- things like blackmail and being arrested simply for who you were. In those days you could get three months in jail and a large fine simply for being queer. Being out could be very dangerous both physically and career wise. It’s important that younger queers know our history and understand that we’re not new on the scene. I talk about this in my show too.”
Is still Bourne still political? “One doesn’t just stop being what one is,” says Bourne. “I’m still out there, still full of fury and rage, but on the whole I do try to keep up a very pleasant façade.”