Conversation With a Diva

Bailiwick Repertory

By Carol Burbank

Gay pride month is always a mixed bag. The parade may feature fabulous drag queens and heartfelt floats, but the spectacle is interrupted by dull stretches of product placement: a big truck advertising beer or reluctant aldermen waving hesitantly from unmarked cars. The entertainment in bars and theaters is just as uneven. The performances sometimes make me proud but often make me wonder when we’re going to outgrow the idea that simply being gay or cross-dressed or sexual (or talking about it) makes us interesting.

Things seem to be changing for the better at Bailiwick Repertory, which sponsors a yearly theater festival. In the past I’ve been disappointed by Bailiwick’s focus on generic gay themes and pretty bodies. Though most of the “Pride ’99” programming is boy crazy, the series opened strongly with Larry Kramer’s problematic but worthy play Just Say No, Tim Miller’s Shirts & Skin, and Dr. Shirlene Holmes’s Conversation With a Diva. With Miller and Holmes, there’s a healthy movement away from bland documentation and titillation toward dynamic storytelling as consciousness-raising. It’s a sign of maturity (and maybe aggressive fund-raising) that Bailiwick managed to bring in Miller one weekend with his adrenaline rush of confession, nudity, and grace, and follow him with such a high-quality local work.

Conversation With a Diva is a journey full of unexpected turns, comic poignancy, and intelligent self-reflection. Holmes, an Atlanta playwright, met Sir Damone, the diva in question, on a bus in Atlanta and based the script on several interviews. The play imagines that an invisible witness, a straight male reporter, has asked Sir Damone to talk about being gay for an article commemorating pride month. For about an hour and a half Damone tells his story, ruefully sharing memories of his youth as a sissy in a violent family, playfully recounting his sexual adventures and love affairs, and philosophizing about his HIV-positive status, religious beliefs, and pride as a gay black man.

It’s a complicated story, beautifully written. Damone’s life illuminates vital issues without reducing them to movie-of-the-week banalities. Each story he tells has a power that draws from the universal and unique. His chaste infatuation with his teacher mirrors many future relationships, which are as much about conversation and holding as about hot sex. When one lover dies in his arms he lets the spirit fly out the window into the rain, which pounds on the house as if it is the lover trying to return, an elemental haunting. Damone’s relationship with Jesus is particularly complex–he’s alternately a man Damone sees in a mall and the Christian deity.

Sir Damone is a diva extraordinaire. As with many queeny men, his greatest charm lies in his ability to celebrate sentimentality and lust with equal vigor. His catty tartness reflects the bitterness that always seems to undercut the flirty femininity. His queeniness is particularly powerful as a pose that keeps him engaged in the world despite illness and isolation.

As Damone, Byron Stewart, artistic director of A Real Read, performs with subtlety and style. His character is lavishly entertaining, a lusty, charming, pushy, strong, sexy man. Dressed in drop-dead baggy pants and a garish shirt, he slides easily into feminine and masculine gestures, naturally and stylishly queer.

Director Jonathan Wilson probably deserves a lot of credit for Stewart’s persuasiveness. One story moves into the next with naturalistic ease, as if the stories rose out of Damone’s mind without a script behind them. The seamless shifts in mood are virtuosic. Damone’s coy, somehow self-deprecating strutting about the gorgeous men he’s had slips into an intense childhood memory as surprising to the character as it is to the audience. Just as easily, a maudlin moment turns to joyful affirmation. Damone’s life may sometimes feel familiar, but it never feels like a cliche. I loved this story of how one particular man became proud of his manhood in a culture that undermines black men and demoralizes gay people.

Conversation With a Diva goes beyond the usual generic gay-guy story that most pride festivals celebrate. As a young subculture we’re still struggling to diversify our coming-out stories, our falling-in-love stories, and even our first-fuck stories. We’re struggling to talk about our differences without threatening our feelings of solidarity. But why should our theater tell generic stories when none of us leads a generic life?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.