Review: The Essence of Boston’s Oldest Gay Bar is Captured in ‘Playland’

Playland, Georden West, Patron Saint, Queer Cinema, LGBTQ+, Queer Filmmaker, Wicked Queer, Documentary, Experimental
A still from "Playland."

Director Georden West is the patron saint of the historic Playland Cafe

“Playland,” from director and screenwriter Georden West, premiered at the Wicked Queer Documentary Film Festival last month, intriguing an audience of LGBTQ+ folks and allies and standing out as the most experimental of all the docs shown. 

The Boston-based Wicked Queer Documentary Film Festival took place at the Brattle Theater Nov. 10-20 and held a streaming encore Nov. 21-30. While next year will mark four decades of Wicked Queer film festivals, this was only the second year of a festival dedicated to the form of documentary storytelling. 

This year’s lineup features some intimate looks into the lives of queer public figures — like “It’s Only Life After All” on folk-rock’s the Indigo Girls — or, everyday people, as shown in “A Big Gay Hairy Hit! Where the Bears Are?: The Documentary,” which tells the story of three older, gay, “bears” working in Hollywood. It features snapshots of history, like “AKOE/AMFI: The Story of a Revolution (*Just to Sleep On their Chest),” chronicling the beginnings of the first Greek LGBTQ+ movement. And then there are films that attempt to capture sectors of culture in broader strokes (yet not without precision), such as “Truth Be Told,” which looks at what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ within the Black church. 

“Playland” meets somewhere in the middle. It has elements very grounded in historical accuracy, like snippets of the radio and news segments on TV. In a style connecting less with realism and more with creative freedom, it captures a piece of Boston’s LGBTQ+ culture, utilizing characters with the imagined personalities of people of its time. It has the intimacy of biographies of queer icons, though focused on a place more than a person, as well as seldom even using more than a few lines of dialogue from the characters. And it does all of this in a beautifully eccentric way.  

“Playland” conjures the ghosts of those who may have inhabited Boston’s oldest gay bar, Playland, on an atemporal night before its permanent closure. The bar was located in the “Combat Zone,” Downtown’s home for much of the city’s adult entertainment. From drag performances and DJ sets to employee interactions, Georden West paints Playland a lot more vibrantly than the film’s color palette (shades of muted pink and grayish-green).  

The experience of watching the documentary feels like being in an amusement park’s hall of mirrors— disorienting, unsettling at times, amusing at others, and ultimately leaving you haunted but maybe a little more knowledgeable coming out than you were going in. 

On that last note: If you go into the film hoping for a PBS documentary on what would have been Boston’s longest-running gay bar had it not closed in 1998, or to feel “smart” on the subject matter, you may be quite disappointed. There are no interviews from those who were involved with running the bar or even anyone who attended it. Nods are made to queer artifacts like the magazine “Fag Rag” with little context — it’s left up to the viewer to do their own research to learn more. But where it lacks in education, it makes up for in evoking essence, emotion, personality, charm. 

Aesthetically, “Playland” feels very reminiscent of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” But in terms of content and form, it is in a similar vein as the documentary “Rebel Dykes,” which highlights establishments for queer nightlife in 1980s post-punk London, finding creative ways to recreate footage and fill in the gaps in the under-documented scene. 

Time is a construct that goes unworshiped by West. At one point the camera focuses on the door leading to the kitchen. It swings open (a motion initiated by no one in particular), revealing two employees having a conversation on break, and then another pairing ballroom dancing in another decade. 

Every (metaphorical) way you turn, there is a new piece of the collage that stands to represent the historic cafe. And in the end, a collage seems the only appropriate way to paint a place where so many people on the fringes of society gathered. 

Many scenes depict mundanities— Sylvia (played by actor Aidan Dick) filling salt shakers; the bartender folding napkins. Cinematographer Jo Jo Lam chooses to have the camera linger on such moments, uncomfortably long at times. And other scenes involve bold theatrics. Coins rain down over an umbrella-holding Sylvia in one. In another, Sylvia and Sunday, played by drag queen Lady Bunny (one of the biggest names attached to the film), lip sync to “Der Rosenkavalier” as Danielle Cooper (VX’s “Pose”), playing “Lady,” conducts them. And towards the film’s end, several of the characters are seen in the kitchen, gathered around the prep table which has an unspecified mass on it that mimics a corpse. This time, it’s not coins that fall from the sky, but ashes. The Playland Cafe is dead and its staff are clad in all-black in mourning. When a black and white photo of “Playland” pops up just before the credits roll with the dates 1937-1998 underneath, you can’t help but mourn, too. 

As a queer person who has spent the past few years living just a couple blocks away from where the Combat Zone and Playland once was, I found myself disappointed, but not surprised, that I had never heard of the area’s past. Boston — and places everywhere, really — has tried to erase history it considers “ugly.” Once demolition is over, new construction is built up under the overly virtuous name ‘urban renewal.’ Open signs are turned over for the first time on the businesses that replace more “unsavory” ones, and the city does its very best to press the gas pedal and never dare to even look in the rearview mirror. “Playland” changed that for me. 

Before “Playland” — their feature-length directorial debut — filmmaker Georden West directed a 2019 short titled “Patron Saint” while they were earning their M.F.A. at Emerson College. The Student Oscar-winning film draws in West’s background of growing up queer and being raised Catholic, reimagining the deities through a queer lens. It is told in an experimental way, a seemingly favored format of West’s. 

A patron saint is seen as the heavenly advocate of a place, activity, person or object. With that definition in mind, West is ultimately (like one imagined in their 2019 short) the queer patron saint of Playland Cafe. Queer creators and organizations that are dedicated to preserving LGBTQIA+ history — like The History Project, which West drew from in researching for the film — are saints preserving the cultural relics that some deem unworthy of holding onto. They are people and groups who inspire others to create a better tomorrow, where queer people can find a place of belonging in a world that doesn’t always accept them. 

“Playland” will showcase as part of the Bright Light Cinema series at the Bright Family Screening Room in Downtown Crossing’s Paramount Theater on Dec. 7. The screening is free and open to the public. 

About :

Nora Onanian is a junior journalism major at Emerson College, a three-time cancer survivor and a recent amputee. She joined The Independent in fall 2023 as co-managing editor. She enjoys naps with her cat, Cashew, attending concerts, swimming and the color orange.