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Fifty Shades of Fay: A Local Writer's One-Woman Show

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On a rainy, windy Saturday evening, the Metropolitan Community Church of Rehoboth on Plantation Road was packed with about 120 people. They weren’t worshippers, however, at least not in the usual sense. This audience had braved the weather for popular local writer and humorist Fay Jacobs’ one-woman show, “Aging Gracelessly: 50 Shades of Fay.” The lights dimmed and Jacobs, a petite 60-something woman with dark hair and glasses, walked out on stage as Billy Joel’s “My Life” poured from the speakers. By her side was a colossal Cosmopolitan cocktail. 

Jacobs started the show with a quote from her father who told her, “Nothing is so bad if it’s worth the story you can tell.” And it’s soon apparent that Jacobs has no shortage of them. “Aging Gracelessly,” a two-act reading with a libation-laced intermission, is a fun-filled romp through her adventures as a lesbian who found happiness in “Gayberry, USA,” also known as Rehoboth Beach. While her stories trace the history of gay culture and the evolution of marriage equality, they also have a broad appeal for baby boomers and Delaware beach-lovers. 

“I’ve seen Fay’s show four times, not because I’m gay, but because she’s just plain funny,” says Steve Elkins, executive director of CAMP Rehoboth (Citizens for a More Progressive Rehoboth), a community improvement organization. Elkins first asked Jacobs to write a column for the nonprofit organization’s publication, Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, in 1995. “Folks from all orientations find something about themselves echoed in her words.”

Terry Plowman, editor and publisher of Delaware Beach Life, would agree. “Fay’s one-woman show is a brilliant piece of work,” says Plowman, who’s been publishing Jacobs’ column, “Flotsam & Jetsam,” in the magazine since 2010. “It’s funny, of course, but also insightful, moving and quite informative about the struggle for gay rights.”

The message is relevant beyond Delaware. This winter, Jacobs’ performance schedule included stops in Florida and New Orleans. She also performed on a cruise organized by Olivia Travel, which targets lesbian clients.  Back in Delaware, shows are scheduled for April 8 and April 10 at CAMP Rehoboth in Rehoboth Beach.

Jacobs culled material from a lifetime of memories. The native New Yorker moved to Washington, D.C., to attend American University, then stayed in the area after graduation. She met wife-to-be Bonnie Quesenberry in 1982, at a gay dance in the Johns Hopkins University’s Glass Pavilion in Baltimore. Jacobs was a newspaper reporter, and Quesenberry owned a dental laboratory. It was a time when lesbians didn’t hold hands in public, so the irony of meeting in the fish bowl-like setting was not lost on Jacobs. 

In the 1980s, straight people often asked them if they were sisters. “What was worse,” she said during the performance, “was when they asked if we were mother and daughter.” The women shopped for a mattress in shifts, meeting in the parking lot to exchange opinions. 

The couple began visiting the Rehoboth Beach area when they bought a boat, which they moored in a marina and visited on weekends. On one weekend in 1995, they went to a Dewey Beach hamburger joint, where they overhead the owner lambasting gays. Incensed, Jacobs wrote a letter to Elkins, editor of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, to warn its readers. “When he heard I was a writer, he asked me to write about our boat trip from the Chesapeake Bay to Rehoboth,” she says. “I have had a column in Letters ever since.” 

The couple moved to the beach full time in 1999. “I was never closeted again,” Jacobs told her audience. “I was in a place where you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a lesbian.” After years in journalism and theater, she took a job as the executive director of Rehoboth Beach Main Street, a position she held for 11 years. In 2002, she received the Governor’s Award for her work in travel and tourism. 

Jacobs’ books include “Fried & True: Tales from Rehoboth Beach,” winner of the 2008 National Federation of Press Women Book of the Year for humor; “Frying Out Loud: Rehoboth Beach Diaries;” and “Time Fries: Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach.” Last year, Jacobs merged her A&M Books with Bywater Books.

Life was better in Rehoboth, but it still held challenges. In 2000, Quesenberry fell and tore a ligament in her knee. She then developed a serious blood clot. Jacobs had to haul around legal documents to prove she could be part of the discussion involving Quesenberry’s care. As the fight for equal rights heated up, she became outspoken in her writing and her legislative work with CAMP Rehoboth. Still, she didn’t consider herself a gay activist until 2003, when she was quoted as one in The News Journal. “I liked it because it occurred to me that it was true,” Jacobs says.

Jacobs and Quesenberry wed in Vancouver in 2003 while on vacation. (They later held a “big fat Jewish wedding” in Rehoboth, the subject of a column.) In 2013, they joined a crowd in front of the Supreme Court to hear how arguments against the federal Defense of Marriage Act were going. (The Supreme Court struck the act down in June 2013.) The couple, together for 31 years, were quoted in an article in The Huffington Post.

Jacobs’ columns over the years have not been confined to gay issues. She’s also put a humorous spin on her zip line experiences, her RV adventures, her addiction to binge-watching TV and her schnauzers. “Fay’s column is one of those things that really does qualify as ‘laugh out loud’ funny,” says Plowman of Delaware Beach Life. 

For years, Quesenberry and friends urged Jacobs to create a one-woman show. Jacobs was already comfortable on stage. She’s directed musical revues and shows such as “Love Letters,” “Shirley Valentine” and “I do! I do!” “Finally, I had to stop the nagging, so I got to work on it,” she says. “Turns out they were right—it was a good idea.” 

She got down to work in fall 2014. By December, she held a “living room reading” in the home of a friend, Ginny Daly. “One of my biking buddies, Dave Snyder, was visiting from the Black Hills of South Dakota,” Daly recalls. “Fay’s world was new to him. His take was that many people from outside Rehoboth or Washington would benefit from the show. We all agreed it opens eyes, minds and hearts.” 

Sensitive to audience reactions, Jacobs picked up the pace in places where she felt the energy lagged. She tweaked again after a reading before the Rehoboth Beach Writers Gild. Then she performed publicly at the Carefree Resort in Fort Myers, Fla. “It was the first time with the musical interludes, sound effects and lights,” she says. “I was thrilled with the response.” In May, her first three performances at CAMP Rehoboth sold out, and there was a waiting list. 

At the Metropolitan Community Church, many of the stories about being gay in the 1980s and 1990s elicited nods and murmured “mmm hmms.” “An older gay audience recognizes themselves in the stories that [concern] being closeted and dealing with being gay in a straight world,” she says. 

The reaction was different one evening when she performed before a mostly straight group. About six people near the front row, lit by the stage lights, didn’t crack a smile. “When they didn’t return at intermission, I was glad to see those sourpusses go home to ‘Duck Dynasty,’ or whatever made them comfortable,” she says. Yet most straight audiences get the humor, even if it’s not “knowing” laughter, she says. “In many cases, straight people in the audience are hearing these kinds of personal stories from an individual who lived it, for the first time.”

Along with the evolution of gay rights and life in Sussex County, Jacobs’ show also notes such cultural references asY2K, when programmers feared the practice of using two digits for the four-digit year could become a critical issue in 2000. “It was a geek tragedy,” Jacobs said to chuckles in the Metropolitan Community Church audience.

Most performances have an intermission, during which the audience can purchase a Fay-tini, a twist on the Cosmo. The sales give a nonprofit a chance to make more money, and it gives Jacobs a break. “I like the intermission, being as I call myself a sit-down comic. It’s a lot of talking, so a break is good for me,” she says. 

Jacobs, however, is not at a loss for words, whether she’s talking or writing. “She makes it seem easy, as if she’s just recounting her everyday adventures, but humor writing is a serious craft, and Fay has it down,” Plowman says.

Daly, Jacobs’ friend, concurs. “Fay is a smart, funky, funny and keen observer of herself and what’s going on around her,” she says. “By charting societal changes through the lens of her own story, she uses her writing and stage skills to get across an important message from the front lines of history.”

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