Joe Gulla

August 23, 2016

Joe GullaJoe Gulla’s monologue The Bronx Queen is the first installment of a trilogy that was originally presented on Manhattan’s Theatre Row a few years ago. Earlier this year it was restaged in the cabaret setting of Joe’s Pub, and on August 20 it had an encore performance there.

The work explores themes that have become extremely familiar to playgoers (and cabaret-goers) in the last few decades. It’s a spoken memoir of Gulla’s life as a young Italian-American gay guy growing up in the Bronx. But it’s not exactly a “coming out” story—or, rather, it’s not just a “coming out” story. It’s more a “coming to terms” tale: a self-assessment of the ways Gulla fit (and didn’t fit) into the milieu of the Bronx in the 1970s and beyond.

Part of what makes the show stand apart among the many titles in the gay-youth-memoir genre is the richness of detail in Gulla’s characterizations. He brings to life a whole borough-full of brash, funny family members, neighbors, and friends. (Well, they’re funny in retrospect, anyhow.) The performance succeeded largely because Gulla came off as such a warm and wise storyteller, brimming with good will and honest reflection. Among the words that flashed on a screen above the stage before the show began were repetitions of the message “You don’t know me”—a phrase that Gulla spoke more than once during the course of the evening. After spending an hour or so with him, though, you might find yourself wishing that you did, in fact, know him.

The title The Bronx Queen refers to a ship that first launched in 1942 and spent its early years as a “submarine chaser” during WWII. The Queen was later repurposed as a chartered fishing vessel, before sinking near the entrance to New York Harbor in 1989. As chronicled in the show, the ship figured prominently in the Gulla family history. (A key episode involves a fishing outing that young Joe reluctantly embarked on with his father and grandfather.) But the title also refers, of course, to Gulla himself. He noted that as a young gay person, he never felt physically threatened in the rough-and-tumble Bronx environment. But he did feel shut out by casually spoken epithets such as “faggot” and “queen” that he heard regularly. As he explained at one point early in the show: “The pain doesn’t come from being different. It comes from finding out you are different.”

Tied in with the conceit of “queenliness” is Gulla’s fascination with the signature crowns in the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whom he admired during his youth (and whom he eventually met). For Gulla, those crowns became icons of personal sovereignty—something he strove for as he grew into adulthood.

The serious themes in the script don’t blunt Gulla’s comic spirit, especially not in the scenes in which “Nanny” (his irrepressible grandmother) plays a part. Nanny is a well-meaning soul who urges people to say “a kind word” to one another. She operates, however, without a filter to screen out the numerous not-so-kind words of her own. Nanny’s steamrolling vulgarity makes her a delightfully outrageous force—a real scream. On the other hand, Gulla’s depiction of his no-nonsense yet vulnerable father is nuanced and achingly real.

Except for fleeting moments at the beginning and end when he stood downstage, Gulla delivered the entire show in Spalding Gray fashion: seated at a desk, reading the script aloud from a binder. At first I wondered whether this was such a great idea. Clearly Gulla knows (or nearly knows) the text by heart. But it turned out to be the right tack. There is a literary quality to Gulla’s storytelling. Were he to stand center stage or wander about—speaking his “writerly” text in stream-of-consciousness, off-the-cuff fashion—the effect might seem stilted.

Gulla’s strengths as a performer were evident even within the limited acting sphere he allowed himself, perched behind that table. His hand gestures were simple but emphatic, giving him an authoritative quality. He modulated his somewhat raspy voice subtly to take on the roles of the various characters in the monologue, but also to give his story shape and his sentiments depth. Clearly, his audience detected his avidity about sharing his life, about making himself known as something greater than those component parts: “Italian-American,” “gay man,” and “Bronxite.”

As he kept reminding us, we may never really know the totality of the real Joe. But he certainly gave us a strong and convincing facsimile.

“The Bronx Queen”
Joe’s Pub  –  August 20


About the Author

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.

2 thoughts on “Joe Gulla”

  1. It should also be noted that Gulla’s strengths as a performer where enhanced by the insightful direction of long time Director Brian Rardin, who has been behind the scenes from the beginning.

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