Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s captivating show is a love letter to the Beat generation

Justin Elizabeth Sayre (left) with Matt Scharfglass on bass, Tracy Stark on piano, and Don Kelly on drums.
Justin Elizabeth Sayre (left) with Matt Scharfglass on bass, Tracy Stark on piano, and Don Kelly on drums.

Writer, performer, and raconteur Justin Elizabeth Sayre is a master of plucking the strings that weave queer past, present, and future together, so it’s no wonder their latest work, “My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff,” is its own axis mundi through time. 

Running at La MaMa through March 24, the 90-minute show follows the free-wheeling, jazz-inflected stylings of Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Sayre spins the tale of Jay, a youth spending a month in the psych ward following a serious car accident. With copies of Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Ginsberg’s “HOWL” among their only personal effects, Jay begins to process what led them to their brush with death.

While the work is fiction, it’s clearly still very personal for Sayre, touching on themes of mental health, queerness, and addiction. However, it’s the shared admiration for the Beats that most seemingly strongly connects Jay and Sayre.

That’s the only way to explain the meticulous love letter to the Beats Sayre has created here. 

The immersive experience is no mere gimmick, nor is it a superficial nostalgia trip. The choice to shine a spotlight on the Beats — a group long overdue for a powerful queer reclamation — feels especially relevant today. 

Sayre begins the show by grounding the audience at the dawn of the Atomic Age. It’s in the shadow of this destruction the Beats confronted life’s cruelest truths and searched for hope from mountaintops to subterranean jazz holes. 

Justin Elizabeth Sayre presents "My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff."
Justin Elizabeth Sayre presents “My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff.”Bronwen Sharp

Maybe that sounds bleak (or maybe the last Oscar season has you all A-bombed out), but audiences could not be in more capable, charismatic hands than Sayre’s. They clearly romanticize the Beats’ pursuit of hope and meaning in the face of loss, so each moment of the performance is imbued with a sense of wonder and purpose, even at some of the most unlikeliest times. 

Sayre pulls it all off, because they are an inescapably captivating presence. They nimbly swing from joy to mischief to rage to vulnerability to burn, burn, burning like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. Sending pages cascading to the floor from a music stand, they invoke the wild passion of a late-night reading at City Lights Bookstore from their first shooby-dooby to the final blackout. 

The accompanying jazz trio (Matt Scharfglass on bass, Tracy Stark on piano, and Don Kelly on drums), helps Sayre turn troubles and trauma into a surprisingly groovy, heartfelt and at times hilarious rhythm.

This is Boppenheimer.

Sayre has always seemed to exist outside of time, anyway. Typically clad in a poet’s beret, flowing caftans and dripping in pearls (long before Harry Styles bent gender on a red carpet), Sayre’s legendary downtown performances dazzled audiences with rapier wit and razor-sharp insights. 

Their long-running variety show, “The Meeting,” put contemporary culture through a kaleidoscopic queer lens; Oscar Wilde’s literary flourish met with the twisted sense of humor of John Waters and Kiki and Herb. The last time I saw them, they were stepping into Justin Vivian Bond’s iconic heels as the emcee of “Club Shortbus,” a very different sort of immersive experience inspired by the John Cameron Mitchell film, also called “Shortbus.” That evening combined performance, sex, and more sex, but there, too, Sayre’s irrepressible charm carried the evening even through what could have otherwise been awkward breaks to mop up whatever fluids had collected on the floor.

Both “Club Shortbus” and “My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff” were directed by Fempath, a New York City-based writer, performer, director, and intimacy coordinator. She and Sayre are a winning pair; she has a knack for creating minimalist, but effective spaces that transport audiences the moment they enter the doors. In Sayre, she has the sort of guide that could confidently shepherd audiences anywhere she can imagine.

“My Beatnik Youth: A Solo Riff” begins downstairs at the lobby where each performance a different poet shares their work in front of projections of Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and beside a wall sporting photos of Beat Generation icons and a map chronicling Kerouac’s routes on the road for “On the Road.” Upcoming performances feature poetry from Heather Johnson (March 21), Heather Denton (March 22), Ashley Escobar (March 23), and Matt Proctor (March 24).

Tickets are available for this weekend’s performance at LaMaMa.org.