Playwright and composer Wayne Self died of colon cancer on June 2. He was best known for his work, Upstairs: A Musical Eulogy, which told the story of the 1973 fire at the UpStairs Lounge.
Wayne grew up in a remote, rural community near Black Lake in Natchitoches Parish. An intelligent, artistic child, Wayne had limited educational opportunities near his home until a new school opened in the nearby city of Natchitoches. The Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA) was, and is, the state’s premier public, residential high school, drawing gifted and talented students from throughout Louisiana. Over the years, The Louisiana School has graduated thousands of accomplished, creative alumni, and more than a few have been LGBT+. In fact, Wayne’s roommate at LSMSA was a young man named Jeffery Roberson, who is now the drag performer, Varla Jean Merman.
After graduating from LSMSA, Wayne stayed in Natchitoches to attend the Scholar’s College at Northwestern State University. I met him during that period because we were neighbors, both living on a street full of charmingly run-down houses, many of which housed university students and new faculty transplants. I had just taken a job teaching at his former high school—a fact which created an instant point of connection. I had a dog that I took on several walks each day, and I would often encounter Wayne on the sidewalk, or chat with him as he sat on his porch.
Wayne studied at NSU for several years, but never graduated, claiming that he was “too busy with underground publishing and political activism. And smoking. Lots of smoking.” Around this time, he fell in love with Cody Braswell who, like Wayne, had grown up as a gay boy in a rural community in Natchitoches parish. They left Louisiana in search of greener pastures, eventually settling in southern California, where they lived for many years.
A couple of decades passed, and I didn’t see Wayne, though I would sometimes hear of him through mutual friends. In 2012 or early 2013, he returned to Louisiana for a visit, and went to see one such friend, a former professor named Fraser Snowden. During that visit, Wayne started speaking enthusiastically about a play he was writing: a musical based on a fire in a New Orleans gay bar. Thirty-two people had died, and though police never made an arrest, their principal suspect later committed suicide. After listening to Wayne talk about the play, Fraser said, “You need to speak to Clayton Delery. He’s writing a book about that fire.”
I had been interested in the UpStairs since I followed the unfolding news coverage as a frightened, closeted teenager in 1973. Once Wayne and I reconnected, we would share manuscripts, resources, and thoughts about the fire and its significance, often through lengthy phone conversations. Wayne turned some of those conversations into two articles for The Huffington Post (and in them, made me far more eloquent than I recall actually being).I was present for the New Orleans premiere performance of Upstairs, and attended later productions in other cities. The play changed a bit over the years, as Wayne revised it for each new production in order to tell the story more completely. One of the things that always impressed me was how skillfully he adapted a sprawling, complicated story of thirty-two deaths and made it practical to produce on a modest stage with a comparatively small cast. Some characters are based on real-life figures, others are composites of several of the bar’s patrons, and at least one is entirely fictional. Despite (or perhaps because of) the creative license and the multiple revisions, the emotional core of the story was always spot-on.
I moved to New Orleans in 2015, which was the year Wayne and Cody—after being together for decades—were finally able to get legally married. They later moved to New Orleans, too, along with Dorian Gray, a new member they had brought into their family. Wayne and I had both moved on to other projects by that point—his being other plays, and a queer-themed comic series.
The last time I saw Wayne was a year ago at the memorial service commemorating the fire’s 48th anniversary. He was with Cody and Dorian, and we made non-specific plans to get together soon. I kept intending to arrange a date and time, but never got around to doing so. Meanwhile I regularly saw him posting on social media from this-or-that parade or festival, always looking handsome, fit, and happy. So fit and happy, in fact, that when I learned of his sudden—and ominous—cancer diagnosis, I had difficulty believing it. I sent Wayne a message of support, and planned to phone in a few days, asking if I could come and visit. Before I could make the call, he had died.
Creative, smart and sweet, Wayne radiated warmth, and had a way of making anyone he was speaking to feel like they were the most important person in the room. I will always mourn him as a friend, as a colleague, and, perhaps most importantly, as an artist who passed away long before he had the chance to tell all the stories and write all the songs contained within him.
Obituary written by Clayton Delery. Delery is the author of two nonfiction books about New Orleans and its LGBT+ History: The UpStairs Lounge Arson (McFarland 2014), and Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice (Exposit 2017).