In a dark theater on a dimly lit stage, drag queen and ballroom legend Dorian Corey sits on a small pink bench in a silk dressing robe and feathered slippers. She thoughtfully puts on her makeup and wig before a packed house of avid watchers. She is not the real Corey — the original grande dame of NYC nightlife died of complications from AIDS in 1993 — but Jeffery S. Jones, who plays Corey, is nearly identical, effusing her velvety baritone and grandiose mannerisms with ease.
Corey boldly recalls the good ole’ days: growing up on a small farm in upstate New York in the 1940s, having trysts with local boys in the backs of barns, and moving to the Big Apple, wherein she became a celebrated drag queen and queer icon. She’s teaching the children in preparation for Case Closed: The Dorian Corey Story.
Case Closed is a new murder mystery directed by Laurence C. Schwartz, playing at the intimate off-off-Broadway Gene Frankel Theater. Jones, who both wrote and stars as the titular character in Case Closed, has been an actor and writer for years, often working with underground theaters and queer-heavy spaces like the Gene Frankel.
“I actually met Dorian Corey in my 20s,” Jones tells Logo, “and she was one of the most charismatic and fascinating people I have ever met. I was always interested in the case of the dead body in her apartment. After years of researching and speaking to people who were around then, I eventually spoke with Vera, Dorian’s roommate, who knew what had really happened. And although officially we don’t know the exact events, this has been an open secret in the old-school gay world for years. And this is the chance to show that.”
Corey was a voguing ball champion and celebrated drag queen as well as the mother of the House of Corey, which held dozens of ball trophies. She found posthumous mainstream notoriety from her scene-stealing appearance in the famed Paris Is Burning documentary. Although Corey died decades ago, there are still plenty of LGBTQ people today who emulate her glittering drag, distinguished personality, and stately sense of style.
But soon after her death, a rotting corpse was indeed found in a trunk in her closet, which is where the plot of Case Closed really begins. (The story is so wild, it even inspired an episode of FX’s Pose in 2019.) Corey’s longtime roommate and fellow Black queen, Velma (played by Isaac Dean and based on Jones’ real life informant, Vera), is questioned by an aggressive Detective Dombrowski (Jake Thomas), who’s on the case and looking for someone to arrest. Velma plays coy for some time, evading the sleuth’s questions with gay bravado and sassy flirting. Eventually, she missteps, placing herself at the scene of the crime. She must give up her story.
Decades ago, the streets of New York City were filled with young queer people from all over the country who had come to escape a world bent on hating them, a storyline that still resonates today. Corey, being a house mother and naturally nurturing, offered her small, one-bathroom Harlem apartment to many such folk.
Case Closed introduces us to the five roommates living with Corey around the time of the incident in 1967: Velma, of course; a Jewish hippie law student named Joseph (Spencer Gonzalez); a handsome young S&M hustler named Manny (Marlon Alexander); an older alcoholic divorcee named Willie (Frank Muni); and a graceful young trans girl from a little town outside Atlanta, Georgia, named Regina (Grant Hale). The crowd of misfits support and love one another as chosen family, with Corey as den mother. Each supporting actor is fully believable as their character, which allows the audience to better assimilate into the past time and place. While “only Dorian and Velma are based on actual people,” says Jones, for a play that is less than three hours, the fictitious characters are all engaging and quickly make you feel invested in their stories and outcomes.
Things are going well for the roomies — it’s the Summer of Love, and the gang’s spirits are high. But once Corey’s boytoy arrives, things heat up uncomfortably. Played grotesquely well by Matt Braddak, Robert “Bobby” Worley is a tall and slimy but sexy, Village People-esque tramp with a porn ‘stache and too much leather on with nothing underneath. He frequently chases after femmes and queens and uses just about everyone he meets to get by. His presence in the house disrupts everyone’s lives, especially Velma, who knows Bobby as he’s been there many times before. Bobby is often sexually aggressive and steals from the already struggling group only to become violent if questioned. His redeeming quality, a reputation in the boudoir with Corey, is the only reason he gains re-entry to her home again and again. And although we don’t want to give away too much, Case Closed gives a highly plausible explanation as to how he ended up as the corpse in Corey’s closet with two bullet holes in his head.
Case Closed: The Dorian Corey Story is full of funny quips, touching moments, surprising factoids, and an enlightening peek into what queer life was like in the mid- to late-20th century. Although the police investigation into who murdered Bobby Worley is still an open case, Jones hopes this play will “reignite interest in this still unresolved mystery.”
Case Closed is playing now through October 10.