Q&A Quickie: David Drake, the Man Behind Drag Diva Tawny Heatherton

By: Brandon Voss

More than 20 years after debuting his seminal gay work The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, one of the longest-running solo shows in Off-Broadway history, playwright-performer David Drake strikes again in Tawny, Tell Me True as Tawny Heatherton, a fictional Hollywood footnote and one-hit wonder of the disco era. Drake discusses the roots of his drag alter ego — and whether or not she could cut it on RuPaul's Drag Race.

Gay.net: When and how was Tawny born?
David Drake: At the carnival celebration in Provincetown a few summers ago — when I flipped a blonde wig on my head backwards. I looked in the mirror, and thought, “You look like that '70s Serta Mattress queen Joey Heatherton!” And because I was very tan at the time, I went, “I’m tawny! Yeah, Tawny... Heatherton. Joey’s niece!”

Tawny has a very colorful and detailed backstory. How did you fill in those gaps?
Oddly enough, Tawny’s evolution was a kind of act of grief transference: Farrah Fawcett’s death was the underlying motivation for Tawny’s personality. She was the magic angel. And she died that summer when Tawny was born. As soon as I had the blonde hair falling in my face, I could just feel all that carefree Farrah-like energy bubbling up, and I just went with it. Joey came into the picture because I’ve always been fascinated by forgotten blonde starlets. I’m a Marilyn hag, so anything that echoed off that image — Jayne Mansfield, Carole Wayne, the Landers sisters — grabbed my interest. Tawny became my way of creating one of those Hollywood girls — the ones we loved, then forgot — and figuring out the “Whatever happened to...?” story. Being Joey’s niece, of course Tawny went into the family business: showbiz! And like Joey, Tawny has been on the tail end of all of it.

You’ve previously explored Tawny in My Tawny Valentine and A Very Tawny Christmas. What are some new stories and songs she’s sharing in Tawny, Tell Me True?
The new show is about Tawny’s becoming keen to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Along the way, she ponders whether her whole crazy, zig-zag journey has added anything to “the greater good” of mankind. This includes Tawny’s abduction by aliens... her sleepwalking jaunts on her bike... and a chicken who she believes has been following her since her brief stint as a “Honey” on the final season of Hee Haw. There’s lots of talking with the audience in this show as well, which I love. And a very funny onstage relationship with her musical director, Lance Cruce. Plus we’ve got some great new songs — classics by The Carpenters, Talking Heads, Eurythmics, B-52s, the Disney ballad “Somewhere Out There,” and a jaunty old country song that’s actually the flip-side to Jeanne C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Drag has been part of your career for many years. Most notably, you replaced Charles Busch in the original off-Broadway run of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and you originated the role of “Miss Deep South” in the off-Broadway musical Pageant. Do you remember the very first time you did drag?
When I was three years old, my mother stood me up on our dining room table in Baltimore, Maryland, and took pictures of me wearing her bouffant blond wig, a mini-dress, and go-go boots. And I never looked happier! So, indeed, I’ve been drawn to drag since I could walk. I’ve been in dresses for eons, but Tawny is my very first creation all on my own.

Would you ever consider trotting Tawny out on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
I’ve found that Tawny's appeal is quite broad — with straights, gays, young kids, older — so I think she’s a natural for a TV show. Maybe Tawny Talk! But while I absolutely adore RuPaul’s Drag Race, I fear I’d lose my life if I had to lip sync for it!

Tawny, Tell Me True runs through Jan. 26 at NYC's Laurie Beechman Theatre.

Tawny Heatherton: Steven Weiner; David Drake: Holly McDade