The pandemic has arguably created the right conditions for a golden age of podcasts, and this lesbian slice of herstory offers warm and compelling reflections on our community in the absence of live events for queer women.
Longtime business partners Wanda Acosta and Karen Song are at the mics for Sundays at Café Tabac, named after their legendary women’s events and soon-to-be finished documentary film of the same name. Some of the guests are luminaries from the film (now in post production), and others are folx from the LGTBQI community. The stories are inspiring, funny, informational, emotional and empowering. They are stories of liberation and visibility that are inspiring for all of us.
Episode 13 with guest Andrea Smith, BIPOC former model turned dog whisperer/ trainer living in Brooklyn airs Monday August 23, and there are several more episodes lined up to close out the year.
We caught up with Wanda and Karen to find out more.
Sundays at Café Tabac has gone from an event series to a documentary to a podcast. When was the ah-ha moment that it should be a podcast and what were you hoping to achieve?
WANDA: I have been creating and producing events for the queer community since 1993, beginning with the Sunday Salon, Sundays at Café Tabac, which has inspired and informed our documentary film and podcast. It tells the story of the 1990s lesbian empowerment movement, the shift in lesbian culture from underground to above ground in the height of the AIDS crisis and much more. It unfolds through the point of view of the salon patrons.
During the pandemic of 2020, all events were cancelled and I found myself thinking of community and connection. I did a few instagram live DJ sets and considered a virtual event, but it didn’t feel right for me. We had so many amazing conversations and interviews from our documentary that I wanted to share however, we were not ready to release the project. I was listening to podcasts while on lockdown and we decided to launch a podcast series of “coming out” stories beginning with our own stories and including LGBTQI guests from our community.
KAREN: The impetus for the podcast series was inspired by the lockdown, but it served a function that we yearned for even before Covid. Being locked away in the quiet work of post production on the film and writing grant applications, meant that we weren’t engaging with our community at an in-person level or through social media presence, in the manner that we were through our previous production and fundraising phases, and we felt like we were in a bit of a stalemate because of that. We wanted our community/audience to know that we were still working on the film and engaging in these rich conversations with each other and the work, and also wanted to find a more immediate avenue to have and share those conversations with our public, since the film by nature, just takes so long. The podcast format was a perfect solution. We were also able through this format, to engage with more subjects from our greater LBGTQ+ family, who for one reason or another, was not in the film.
The podcast genre is overcrowded now but not lesbian-run podcasts. Why is this an important slice of herstory and culture?
WANDA: It is important to preserve our history from our own point of view and perspective, our own voices, not from the outsiders’ view or gaze.
LGBTQI culture has changed and will continue to evolve. It is necessary to reflect on where we have come in order to understand where we are going and how shifts happened. It is all interconnected and changes within our community and culture affect society at large and vice-versa. The stories you hear in our podcast are all unique, personal and powerful. The listener is transported into different landscapes and cultures, personal familial situations as the narrator navigates through the emotions and struggles of coming out. They are ultimately tales of liberation, acceptance, community and love, which we felt are important stories to share and preserve.
KAREN: Despite this age of information overload and the greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in our society, we still feel the weight of lesbian historical and cultural invisibility. There are so many of our stories that still need to be told, archived and make their way to the public at large. Experiencing the challenges of making our film, from sourcing archives to finding funding, for us shed light to just how dire this void is—and how do we build and grow the movement if we don’t know what’s come before? We are bound to repeat history over and over again. And there is so much strength and inspiration to be gained from learning the past, hearing stories that stretch from personal triumphs to organized movements, of those who came before and built and defied and envisioned us to a new reality. We can continue to push forward from where they left off, instead of starting all over again.
What’s your basic format like and who are your ideal guests — not all women I notice. Please share your aesthetic and philosophy.
WANDA: We wanted to have a short (under 60 mins) podcast series of coming out stories, that was informal storytelling, yet compelling in its narrative. Our initial guests were folx in our immediate community, who were patrons of Sundays at Café Tabac and were featured in our documentary. We are now into season 2 of the podcasts with 12 episodes that include award-winner author, Jacquline Woodson, trans film director, Sam Feder who directed Disclosure, currently on Netflix, basketball legend, Sue Wicks, drag legend Sherry Vine, just to name a few. They are a racially diverse group of women and men that identify as lesbian, gay, queer, trans. Our podcast begins with informal conversation between our guests, leading into their coming out story and expanding into where and how they hold space in the present moment.
KAREN: When we filmed our interviews for the film, we asked our subjects to share their coming out stories. They were all so incredible, but ultimately, there was no space for them in the film cut, but we still wanted to share them with the public because we saw a deep value in them. These intensely personal stories were so compelling and moving, with each being so richly unique. We also found them to be meaningful as stories of their times, reflecting specific cultures, geographies, as well as values that make us human—through our interpersonal connections, our self definitions and how we empower ourselves through our identities. Altogether, they embodied a beautiful oral history of what it means to be LGBTQ+.
The diversity of the original Café Tabac space, despite it being primarily by and for lesbians, is what made that gathering so special and so rich, so we wanted to extend that to how that might be reflected today through this podcast and the subjects we featured in the film as well. We felt limited by the idea of women and/or lesbians-only as subjects, and wanted to hear a myriad of voices from our community at large, without limitation. Especially as we are seeing an exciting leaning in and/or expansion and embracing of fluidity, identity and self-representation, in the continuation of the consciousness and work that was done in the past—we wanted to further stoke and celebrate that expansion and empowerment.
How did you each spend the pandemic? What did it teach you? Truly, it’s still going…but any upsides for you?
WANDA: I spent the majority of 2020 in my home in Rincon, Puerto Rico. I usually divide time between PR and NYC, but the pandemic restrictions sequestered me in the tropics. I was grateful to be surrounded by nature, sky and water, but equally so anxious and concerned about what was happening in the world, more specifically New York which was ground zero during the height of the pandemic, and where most of my family and community are located. It was extremely difficult to watch the events unfold from a distance. We coordinated to get PPE (personal protection equipment) to health care workers in Brooklyn, while trying to adjust to all the changes happening so quickly around us. It was a time of much reflection and appreciation, prioritizing what brings joy and meaning to my life, taking the time to appreciate my surroundings, be it nature or the person standing next to me. Sharing meals, conversations and music with my partner, while attempting to drown out the excess (which was difficult leading up to the elections), but this time also forced me and others to think creatively and out of the box. I started painting again, created the podcast and an online queer art collective. It seems cliche, but there is light at the end of the tunnel if you allow yourself to open your eyes.
KAREN: I spent the pandemic in Brooklyn, in one of the global Covid epicenters in those early days of the pandemic, and I had a lot of time to reflect on mortality and our humanity as I think we all did. But it was particularly exacerbated because I knew people who died, and the landscape itself really felt apocalyptic, the virus so tangible. I’d wake up daily feeling like I was in a sci-fi movie, the details of what that meant was a bizarre mix of sensory experiences unique to a lifetime in NYC. But the enduring conclusion that kept reaffirming itself in increasingly profound and intimate iterations, was that understanding that we need each other to survive. Our sensory interpersonal connections and interdependent sense of community is so deeply critical to our existence as individuals and as a species.
Whilst having more time to work on the Café Tabac film, it was hard not to draw parallels of the relevancy of the AIDS epidemic in our film, to the current situation, and it inspired a glimmer of solace in an otherwise bleak situation. That morsel of hope came from knowing that we collectively will overcome, and that a phoenix must and will rise out of the ashes of the devastation. We saw that with the AIDS epidemic and the response that came out of AIDS activism to fight it and all the interconnected obstacles presented in our society. We saw what happens when community mobilization is matched with personal empowerment. The result is breathtaking and history-changing. In NYC we were on the frontlines, then and now. The government response then and now, was criminally neglectful and diversionary, fueling a culture that would support their immoral inactions. But ultimately, we saw then, as we are seeing now, how people value each other in a new light, discovered our own agency and voice to help each other, to reach out to each other, understanding the power of our connections and community. And as in our film, how ultimately physical space is so valued, especially safe queer spaces, to connect, touch and see, to celebrate each other, to know we are here.
Q40 creates content and space for all genders over 40. What is the best thing about being over 40 for you?
WANDA: Ha, the best thing about being over 40 for me? Well, I would say it’s the ease and confidence that comes with age and wisdom. It’s not giving a f*ck what anyone thinks anymore, and just being. Aging gracefully and consciously and embracing the grays, the pouch and the life lines. Loving myself just the way I am.
KAREN: Having the luxury and experience of time to see things with more of a bird’s-eye view, but also the understanding of how fast it flies. Of witnessing the various cycles of history in one lifetime, and the various manners in which activism, enacted, can endure. But also how activism must be a regular practice, otherwise progress can and will revert. Of being more firmly in your own skin, voice and power.
Sundays at Café Tabac is recorded at Rockefeller Center in NYC. Listen via cafetabacfilm.com/podcast or on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher @Sundays at Cafe Tabac.
About the podcasters:
Wanda Acosta is simply a nightlife icon. She is the creator of parties including Indulgence at Casa La Femme, No Day Like Sunday at Café Tabac, Pleasure at Bar d’O, Kitty Glitter at Liquids, Skin-Tight at Tribal Lounge, Circa at Trompe L’Oeil, YuMMY at Cafe Melville, Soho Groove at Sticky! Puta Scandalosa at Mother, Starlette Sunday at Starlight, AVA at Clubhouse and Showstopper at BLVD. She owned lesbian bars including WonderBar, Starlight and Clubhouse which were open in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her work in nightlife ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. She is the co-creator and producer of the documentary “Sundays at Café Tabac” and co-host of its podcast.
Karen Song is a film/video director, writer, producer, DP/Cameraperson, editor and actor, whose background spans narrative and documentary films, TV, commercials, music videos, branded content, web series, on-demand streamed content, video content for live events, the theater, and more. She is the director, co-creator and producer of the documentary “Sundays at Café Tabac” and co-host of its podcast. She is also a contributing co-host for the “Swell Season Surf Radio” podcast. Some of her work and a more comprehensive bio can be found at www.singasongproductions.com