By Niki D’Andrea
Over the course of her 36-year career in show business, Lea DeLaria has performed standup comedy all over the world, performed in a plethora of plays and musicals, had roles in copious TV shows (most notably as Carrie “Big Boo” Black in Orange Is the New Black), and released six music albums.
One thing she has not done is compromise. Known for her brash attitude, raunchy routines and outspoken nature, the 60-year-old queer tour de force has drawn admiration and ire for her tirades against the Trump administration on social media. Though she holds the distinction of being the first openly gay comedian to appear on a late-night television show (The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993), she’s aware her razor-tipped quips and crude panache don’t exactly give her the kind of mass appeal other lesbian celebrities possess.
“I’ve always been way more radical than Ellen (DeGeneres). I’m way, way more radical than Rosie (O’Donnell), and they know it. We’re all friends. We all talk,” DeLaria says. “That’s why you see them more on television than you see me, because I come with a lot more baggage than they do. I’m not willing to compromise certain things that other people are willing to compromise.”
“Being the big, queer, tough dyke that I am, I refuse to compromise,” she continues. “I’m not going to wear lipstick. I’m not going to grow my hair long.”
Still, she’s landed roles on TV shows including Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Will and Grace, Friends and Matlock, and of course her Screen Actors Guild Award-winning role on Orange Is the New Black as Big Boo – a hard butch with a foul mouth and a soft heart who’s just as quick to counsel a friend in need as she is to throw a punch in a prison melee. DeLaria says Big Boo is easily her favorite role “for so many reasons.”
“And that is my least acting role,” DeLaria says. “Big Boo is essentially me, so I don’t have to work with that character at all, you know what I mean? It’s an incredibly well-written show. I just say the lines they give me to say, and I don’t have to make them funny because they are funny.”
DeLaria will bring her own flamboyant brand of funny to Chandler Center for the Arts on Friday, November 9, in a show that combines her uncompromising comedy (expect more verbal eviscerations of the current POTUS) with her innovative spins on the jazz genre.
That’s right – jazz. The daughter of a jazz pianist, DeLaria says the first thing she ever did professionally was perform with her father at a jazz club in east St. Louis. She’s exceedingly well-educated in the genre (she says her favorite jazz standard is “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” penned by the Gershwin brothers, which she points out is unusual because she tends to go more for the songbooks of Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter). And as with all things, DeLaria does jazz differently than anybody else.
To wit: Her sixth album on the Warner Jazz and Classics label, House of David: delaria+bowie=jazz. Released in the summer of 2015, the record renders a dozen David Bowie songs into jazz tunes, including “Modern Love,” “Suffragette City” and “Let’s Dance.” The album had Bowie’s blessing.
“I put the record out six months before he died. He was an incredibly big supporter of the album. I never would have been able to make it if he hadn’t been such a big supporter,” DeLaria says. “He encouraged people to donate to my GoFundMe page and put it up on his website and told people to buy it. He signed off on me doing all the music. That was a really awesome thing to happen for me in my life.”
For DeLaria, who was born in Belleville, Illinois and grew up without any openly queer idols in comedy or on television, Bowie was a revelation. “When David Bowie’s first record hit America in 1974, I was 16 years old,” she says. “I remember hearing ‘Starman’ and just going, ‘What the [expletive] is this?’ and how great it was. And then I saw him on Saturday Night Live in a dress.”
“He was one of the first people that taught me that being weird is cool, and that you don’t have to maintain the status quo of what other people think is normal,” DeLaria adds. “What is way more interesting as an artist is to be true to yourself, and if you’re crazy, be crazy. And if you have a weird idea, pursue it. He gave me a lot of the courage that I have to just go out and be who I am.”
What: Lea DeLaria
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 9
Where: Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Info: 480-782-2680, chandlercenter.org