A friend of mine who worked as a caterer at a recent Ted Kennedy fund-raiser told me that every time a champagne cork popped, Kennedy ducked. I was reminded of a spring afternoon when I was walking in the heart of Chicago’s gay ghetto and a passing truck backfired: along with two other men on the street, I ran for cover.
I might have simply laughed off my response to a backfiring engine if it hadn’t been for a disturbing realization: I found nothing surprising in being fired upon in that neighborhood. Like many of my friends (gay, women, both), I’ve grown accustomed to this state-of-siege mentality: being openly gay in America means getting used to feeling like a target.
Toronto playwright Robin Fulford, in his powerful drama Steel Kiss, exposes the many societal neuroses that make violence against gays seem a natural outgrowth of Western culture. Based on the 1985 murder of a gay librarian by four teenage boys in Toronto’s High Park, Fulford’s play steers admirably clear of moralizing and finger pointing, and it never offers easy answers. Instead it presents an unnerving, fractured portrait of the eternally threatened male psyche unwittingly lashing out against the parts of itself it fears most.
Four actors, who portray numerous characters, open the play with a brutal, frenetic, chillingly stylized ritual. The men continuously circle a pink baseball cap lying center stage in a pool of light, and with each revolution their animosity toward the hat grows. They begin to shout at it, to wave their fists at it furiously, to slam their heavy boots against it, always moving and speaking in incantatory unison. Suddenly breaking into two couples, they kiss tenderly, passionately. Finally they charge to the very edge of the stage and stand a few feet from the audience, each lit by an overhead spot, gasping frantically in ecstasy, terror, or rage.
The fervor evident in the opening five-minute section never wanes throughout Steel Kiss’s hour and 15 minutes. Nor does the suppleness with which the actors shift from one reality to another. One minute they’re cruising each other in the park, the next screaming vulgar invectives at the very men they were just portraying. No matter what demands Fulford places on them, Jason Buyer, Michael Mazzara, Joel Mehr, and Todd Oldham meet them with panache, bringing this intricate script vibrantly to life.
Director Frank Pullen not only pushes his cast to extremes, he adeptly brings together the many divergent aspects of the play. Since reality here is continually evolving and being transformed, Pullen wisely avoids getting stuck in any one particular reality. Instead he stylizes and abstracts much of the play; in several sections three actors gesturing in unison portray a single character, and in others the actors look into the audience even though they’re talking to one another. Steel Kiss floats in an evocative, poetic space, never sinking under the weight of the horrors it contains.
For the four teenagers are truly horrors, and all the more terrifying because they’re so familiar. Flushed with hormones, they bully one another, constantly goading their compatriots into stupid macho acts like accosting women in public, taunting strippers, or beating up fags. The worst insult they can deal is the intimation of homosexuality, of being a feminized man, a suggestion always met with unrestrained hostility. Yet as the play progresses, it becomes apparent that these monsters, while responsible for their own actions, are the products of a brutal environment. Everyone, from family members to clergy to schoolteachers, vilifies anything nonmasculine in the men. This idea is most cleverly articulated when a teacher confesses he can’t understand how such normal boys could commit murder while behind him the football coach works his team into a murderous froth. The play makes clear that the real question isn’t why these boys beat a gay man to death, but why it doesn’t happen more often.
Fulford’s script loses a bit of its momentum in the second half, when he gives us several long, redundant scenes of the boys hanging out and encouraging one another’s most hateful tendencies. After about the third one, no additional complications or deeper psychological insights develop. However, when the murder finally takes place, Pullen intelligently masks the horror in complete blackness, cut only by the boys’ bewildered voices. Just as the boys sink into the darkest recesses of their corrupt natures, Pullen’s play also plunges into darkness.
Perhaps Fulford makes his most astute and passionate observation in one simple recurring gesture; at some point in the play each boy puts the pink cap on his head, turning into the man he had a hand in killing. In this eloquent twist, Fulford reminds us that a murderer always tries to kill a part of himself, a part that will never die–particularly in this murder, fueled as it was by the boys’ terror at recognizing homosexual impulses in themselves.
Self-destructive violence is never far beneath the surface of American culture, as Fulford pointedly demonstrates. No matter where these boys turn, their lives are hemmed in by threats and intimidation. As Ted Kennedy, quoted in a program note, has said, “We are a violent people with a violent history. And the instances of violence have seeped into the bloodstream of our national life.” Steel Kiss reminds us just how deep the stream of violence runs–and if more of us were willing to confront the problem in all its complexity, as Fulford has done, we might live in a healthier, safer society.