Instead, read “Finding Me” to find out how she got her courage. She doesn’t have to tell us right away that the book has its origins in her public speaking engagements—each chapter moves toward self-discovery and even the worst of revelations (including sexual assault, domestic violence, violence, hunger, and a variety of poverty- related humiliations) come with an arrow pointing out. Look, every chapter says, I survived and thrived. Davis’ off-the-shoulder prose doesn’t make it pretty: Her father, MaDaddy, was a source of terror. But he changed, and she allowed him to shift his place in her heart. She also brings this fierce, clear refusal to forget and willingness to forgive to her time in the industry. She cites the statistics and her own experiences with racism, including some self-denying choices to play roles she knew were below her. The best parts of the book have this angry clarity; they sound like a gun call. However, for fans of her artistry, you’ll have to look elsewhere to understand the mechanics of her craft.
Likewise, you won’t find the key to Harvey Fierstein’s creative mysteries in his memoir, I WAS BETTER TOnight (Knopf, 384 pp., $30), though you’ll find boatloads of charm and gossip and a few sudden ice water drops in rage. His playwright’s ghost always keeps notes and, as Fierstein puts it, “The jockey never remembers using a whip. The horse never forgets.” He certainly hasn’t forgotten his childhood or time in the 70’s and 80’s in downtown theaters, both of which he describes in great detail. These must-see chapters are licked with makeup and sweat: acting in Brooklyn, anonymous sex at the Trucks, a creepy coming-out experience (do not leave certain kinds of photos in your house), late night snacks at the Warhol Factory tab, his first drag costume, AIDS, love, crushes, grief and the first excitement of a triumphant talent.
Once we get to the lubricated portion of his career – after he broke through, he succeeded quickly and young and often – Fierstein takes on a certain amount of fame from his reader. So any neo-Harvey phytes will have to rent “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage aux Folles”; you may also want to find a bootleg of his Broadway performances in “Hairspray” and “Fiddler on the Roof” just to fully understand what he’s talking about. He cheerfully answers frequently asked questions (Why does Arnold have so many rabbit paraphernalia in “Torch Song”?), but reader, beware: These may not be universally asked questions.