Reno — the one-named Latina lesbian monologist known for far-reaching, politically oriented cable shows and live performances — was scheduled for a gig less than a month after Sept. 11, 2001, at the New York City alternative-theater space Cafe LaMaMa.
“On Sept. 20 the producer called and said we’re late on publicity,” Reno recounted in a recent talk with Xpress. “Well, we did have to do the show, and there was nothing but [Sept. 11] to talk about. I happen to have a gig, so what are we going to do? Talk about something else?”
Reno’s show opened just after the bombing in Afghanistan began. Like all of her material, it was funny (she wonders out loud what happened to the Emergency Broadcast System on the morning of the attacks), immediate (as events changed, Reno quickly incorporated them into her hour-and-a-half performance) and incisive.
Never one to be afraid to criticize, Reno questioned her own patriotism and this country’s political leadership at a time when it was dangerous to do both.
The show was a hit, earning favorable notices from the New York Times and The New Yorker, and drawing crowds of city residents looking to rediscover laughter as they dealt with their severed skyline and altered lives.
Rebel Without a Pause: Unrestrained Reflections on September 11th was taped last December (the film played at the Toronto International Film Festival, among others, and is scheduled to open in New York next month), and Reno started to tour with her show last year.
For the next two weeks, she’ll be in Asheville, performing Rebel at the North Carolina Stage Company.
Still struggling to rid her apartment of the gray dust that descended on lower Manhattan after the towers fell — “You can vacuum it, but it just keeps coming back,” Reno notes — she is reminded of the attacks every day.
“[New Yorkers] want there not to ever be a forgetting … not to say that we — we being [those who live] in the neighborhood — have any more call on this disaster than any other United Statesian,” she remarks.
Reno admits she doesn’t have a grand plan for what to do with the much-discussed space that used to contain the World Trade Center.
“I don’t have huge formulations of ideas,” she elaborates. “I, of course, want there to be parkland; I would like there to be a memorial that is not macho, one more indicative of peace than victory. Someone spent $500,000 working up a model of a city in the sky, including a park in the sky. Most people don’t like that idea. No one wants to get on an elevator to go to a park. The park needs to be on the fricking ground level.”
Then, in what is just the first display of her remarkable memory, speed of thought (Reno is a late-diagnosed sufferer of attention deficit disorder) and sense of humor, the comedian brings up something she read in an old New Yorker: a proposal from a couple of artists on how Ground Zero should be re-developed:
“They wanted a berry farm there,” she says. “I just loved that. They should put — what are they called — cows? It would be so humorous. A big ‘f••k-you’ — we’re putting cows here now.”
Having arrived at the subject of rural America, Reno is quick to spin off on why she’ll never live there.
“Now, the country scares me,” she begins. “They don’t lock their doors in the country, and then the disgruntled guy from 7-11 comes down the most rural routes and tortures you because locks don’t exist. … I feel safe here [in New York] because people are everywhere. [Criminals] don’t torture you. [If someone shoots you], it’s blam! blam! — 30 seconds and they’re out of there; gotta make the 5:17 [train].”
Reno says putting together Rebel so soon after Sept. 11 helped her maintain her first reactions to the events as the day began to seep into history.
“When I first did this show on Oct. 4, 2001, I just had a list of things I wanted to try to get to and no actual lines,” she recalls. “I’m glad that I did it that early because it’s really vibrant. There’s no way I would have that visceral, shaken quality [if I wrote it] now.”
Promising that 20 percent of the Asheville show will be new, Reno says her monologue continues to improve as she updates it with the latest news while sustaining a core message.
“It’s better now,” she claims. “Most of the bones are still the same, [but] the flush is different.”
Her previous credits include a four-part series on Bravo titled Citizen Reno and an HBO special called Reno Finds Her Mom, wherein the comedian, who was adopted, tracks down her birth mother (friends Mary Tyler Moore and Lily Tomlin help her deal with the emotional fallout).
Reno, who incorporates sometimes complex political analysis into her comedy, admits that making such issues funny can be a challenge.
“If you have to explain Bretton Woods, you’re not going to be very entertaining,” she notes. “[I always] have to figure out some succinct way to explain the income tax, [or] gerrymandering congressional districts — people don’t think about things like that on a daily basis.”
Despite being often identified as a liberal, Reno says she has no problem appealing to audiences of all political stripes.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I’m a conservative Republican from Orange County, [Calif.], but I agree with everything you said.'”
The film version of Rebel has been well-received not just in Toronto, but in Cuba and Italy as well. In Florence, the film garnered a peace prize — though Reno, who doesn’t read Italian, admits she’s still not sure what the award exactly means.
Angie Flynn-McIver, producing director of North Carolina Stage Company, says that interest in Reno was sparked after the company’s late-summer production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
“When we did Hedwig, some colleagues of ours came to the show, and they were friends with Reno’s manager,” Flynn-McIver explains. “Through the grapevine they had heard Reno was looking to do a show in the South. There’s a community here [that] wants to hear a loud liberal voice, and that’s what Reno is.”