Tonight I saw Cole Escola’s new solo show “The First Gay President,” and it felt historic. Cole has always been too weird for pretty much anything. His most successful work - like the now-legendary TV series “Jeffery & Cole Casserole” - allowed him go totally nuts, to rip apart any sense of decorum or decency, and operate on the fringes of coherence and social acceptability. Tonight’s show - his first full-length, non-musical, live solo performance in… maybe ever? - found Cole at his feral best, with a loose, punk attitude woven through a series of solo sketches (sometimes with Christian Coulson providing an unseen, off-stage voice, and sometimes with audience members roped into playing various scene partners). Cole is still developing the piece, so I don’t want to give anything away, but I was startled to find him delving into uncharacteristically serious (and sometimes even political) subject matters, flashing glimpses of social critique that have always felt abstract or non-existent in his previous performances. But it wasn’t just the content of this show that felt different. It was something more intangible than that.
In a way, though Cole has been performing live in NYC for around 6 years, this felt like his “first” show. It had all the boldness and epic scope of a First Show — a confrontation with the past, with family, with sexuality, that was broad enough to feel like a first attempt at self-expression, but with the chops and wisdom to elevate those impulses to something grander — the complete world-view of a single, powerful mind. There was something iconic about this series of sketches. Something about their range and singularity that reminded me of early Whoopi Goldberg or Lily Tomlin’s “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life” in a way that nothing EVER reminds me of those things, and I see a LOT of solo performance. (I TEACH IT.)
I’ve been waiting to see this performance for a really long time. I met Cole in late 2006, at a party where he seemed to know no one. He had been living in NYC for a little over a year. He was only 19, and would have been a sophomore in college, but he stopped going, so instead of being a student, he was just this disturbingly quiet, little, ostensibly-vegan person with a job he didn’t seem to like. He wasn’t performing. He never even mentioned performing. He rarely said anything about himself at all. But every once in a while he would mutter something really creative and bizarre, or drop some other clue that maybe he was some kind of secret genius. One night at a piano bar in Midtown, he ordered and ate an entire sausage pizza (“I thought you were a vegan!”), then hopped onto the piano and belted Suddenly Seymour with maniacal ruthlessness, and I was like WHAT. THE. FUCK. IS. GOING. ON. Then I found a LiveJournal account he made in high school, full of surreal, disturbing stories about abortion, rape and murder. Then he posted a 10-second YouTube clip of the character we now know as Joyce, sitting on a kitchen counter, waving around a butcher knife, screaming, “IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE BLACK PEOPLE.” I was like “COLE. WHAT. IS. THIS.” He removed the clip a few months later.
I was thrilled when he started making videos with Jeffery, not just because those guys were (and are) such a one-in-a-million comic duo, but because Jeffery has a sense of entitlement that was alien to Cole. Jeffery knows he belongs in front of you, on a screen, entertaining you, and there are no apologies about it. Cole is more inertial. If you push him in a direction, he’ll keep going. But if left to his own devices, he will probably just eat another bowl of cereal, and keep his brilliance a secret.
Or, at least, that was the case before tonight. “The First Gay President” is the first full-length piece I have ever seen come directly and entirely from Cole, on his own terms, at his own pace, and for his own purposes, and it showcases that magical, freakish luminosity that I once saw only in flashes, and then bouncing off of other people, and now finally shining out on its own. I feel unspeakably lucky to have been there tonight, and I cannot wait to see where it goes from here.