Angels Into Dust: The New Town Anthology
By Justin Hayford
In 30 short years Gay Pride Day has become as ahistorical and commercialized as Secretary’s Day: official “pride events” make it more and more difficult to understand what it is we gay people are supposed to be proud of. Little more than A-list dance parties, most such events seem to indicate we should be proud of overdeveloped pecs. And our community’s supposed rallying point, the Gay Pride Parade, has devolved from a political march into a boring four-hour marketing opportunity for politicians and local and national businesses.
Bailiwick Repertory’s “Pride Series,” an annual showcase of mostly new gay and lesbian plays, has in some ways bucked this trend. Sure, there are enough crowd-pleasing seminaked romps to keep the coffers full–and putting porn stars disguised as actors onstage is as opportunistic as turning a Miller Lite delivery truck into a float in the Gay Pride Parade. But over the festival’s 12-year history, the organizers have also made a concerted effort to explore gay culture and history, producing an 1896 play–the never-before-seen At Saint Judas’s–thought to be the first gay-themed American drama.
Still, the fact that gay people have been visible in American theater at least since 1896 is no particular source of pride. Too often these days we confuse gay existence with gay accomplishment–too many artists fall into the “I’m gay therefore I’m fascinating” trap. Chanting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” for a good part of the last decade, we should now ask what we’ve got to show for ourselves.
It seems Chicago columnist Jon-Henri Damski (who died in 1997 at the age of 60) devoted his life to answering this question, applying a PhD in classics to Chicago street culture, chronicling gay life over a period of 22 years. “My routine was to walk continually–day and night–and gather stories,” he wrote in the introduction to his collected essays, Angels Into Dust: The New Town Anthology. “From one person I would get one story, which would alert me to a theme or situation. Once I heard a similar story from someone else, I took that for verification and wrote it down.”
But Damski was not simply an oral historian. He was also a fierce moralist who strove to reenvision those aspects of gay culture often disparaged by gays and straights alike as perverted. One of his most extraordinary columns–“Sex Clinic on the Hill,” from Gay Life in 1984–transforms a stretch of late-night Lincoln Park bushes full of sex-crazed men into a healing ground, where sexual dysfunction, both personal and cultural, is relieved through the intervention of Greek deities. This tour de force brings the reader to a sophisticated understanding of the transgressive power of promiscuity.
Damski was nothing if not promiscuous in the word’s original sense: composed of diverse elements. And perhaps the one disservice adapter/director Fred Anzevino does to Damski’s work is to diminish its promiscuity. In an attempt to create thematic cohesion, Anzevino includes a long string of stories in the middle of his 75-minute show, given the same title as Damski’s anthology, that might indicate Damski saw gay men only as addled by sex, addicted to drugs, and/or terminally ill. Heterosexuals mentioned in passing have families and careers, but almost every gay man here seems stuck in a bar, an orgy, or a hospital bed.
Gravitating toward the marginalized and downtrodden, Damski wrote of them, “I recognized early on that these people were mostly abandoned souls.” It’s breathtaking to see the wisdom, foolishness, courage, and outrageousness he found among men who might easily have been dismissed as stereotypes. These are powerfully human portraits, but lined up one after another they become almost indistinguishable despite generally careful and caring performances by Anzevino’s four cast members, the appealing Jim Anderson, Jon Arndt, Marc Jablon, and Alfred Kemp.
When Anzevino moves on to different material–Damski’s touching eulogy for his cleaning woman “Ella Be Dead” and his ingenious critique of military homophobia “Our Homo Army”–the full scope of the writer’s talent is more apparent, and Angels Into Dust soars. For the most part the actors speak with candor and ease, usually telling Damski’s stories rather than trying to act them out (making Kemp’s extended reenactment of an orgasm particularly silly and inappropriate). While the simplicity of the staging–there are no fancy gimmicks and few light or sound cues–at times leaves the men stranded in silent dead space, it keeps the focus on the words, far and away the show’s most engrossing aspect.
This evening makes it clear why gay people should be proud. The folks Damski profiles used their courage and imagination to forge cultural institutions, defy oppressive norms, and reinvent their corner of Chicago without ever compromising the joyful campiness that defines the modern gay rights movement. Damski’s portrayals show that ordinary down-and-out people with nothing to lose and little to prove created a public gay world by sticking their necks out.
Damski’s writings also remind us how precariously that heritage is poised above the neoconservative chasm of assimilation. Rather than create new cultural institutions, gay leaders today fight for admittance into such oppressive heterosexist clubs as marriage and the military. We hail as “progress” a multibillion-dollar corporation’s marketing plan, which includes a way to openly manipulate gay consumers. And in the ultimate act of amnesia and betrayal, the whole gay liberation movement of the 70s–which finally enabled gays to hold their heads high and even be elected to national office–has been cast as nothing but a hedonistic party. I think we’re overdue for a Gay Shame Day.
If Angels Into Dust represents the best of the “Pride Series,” Naked Will and Bare represent the typical: they’re awkward and unfinished–ambitious but ultimately insubstantial. Blair Fell’s Naked Will begins with great promise, as Oscar Wilde and his bumbling sidekick, Erskine, find themselves on the verge of a great literary discovery. It seems that Erskine’s college chum Cyril has identified the person to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets–the mysterious “W.H.”–as one Willie Hughes, a boy actor. So the Bard was not only queer but a twink chaser to boot.
The play’s first 20 minutes set up an intricate plot of interwoven story lines. Will Cyril be able to prove his theory? What will come of Erskine’s painful infatuation with Cyril? Will Wilde come to either man’s rescue? Erskine tells the story of Cyril’s literary investigation in flashback, mentioning up front that the final result is his friend’s death. This creates powerful stakes, but once that flashback is over and Cyril dies, they vanish.
Following the structure of Wilde’s essay “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” Fell has Wilde go back in time (in a daydream) to meet Shakespeare and track down his mysterious muse. The next hour and a half maps in obsessive detail the relationship between Shakespeare and W.H. as it appears in the sonnets. Fell tries to camp things up a bit with ridiculous but amusing anachronisms–Shakespeare wears a leather harness under his shirt, for example, and falls in love with Wilde’s ballpoint pen. But once the first few scenes solve the play’s central mystery, the rest feels like an academic exercise.
Brian Kirst’s Bare will go down as the biggest missed opportunity of Bailiwick’s “Pride 2000.” According to press materials the play is about barebacking–the unprotected sex actively sought by some gay men. No contemporary issue in gay culture is more volatile or complicated, and the theater seems the perfect venue to explore the psychological, cultural, and political forces that make so many gay men put themselves in such peril.
But Bare isn’t about barebacking at all. True, the main character, Webb, is a sexual renegade who sleeps with anything that moves and refuses to use condoms (“It’s the one freedom I won’t surrender to straight society” is his nonsensical remark). But Kirst gives him about three sentences to justify his behavior and then drops the subject. In its place he offers a confused, overwrought story of family and romantic relationships torn asunder by Webb’s self-absorbed self-destructiveness.
Despite some strong performances (Bailey Boudreau makes an impressive Chicago debut as the dead-end club kid Hauser), the play spins in so many directions it’s hard to keep yourself oriented. And in the end Kirst offers yet another conservative morality tale–one more nail in the coffin of gay liberation–as Webb realizes the error of his pansexual ways and prepares to straighten up and fly right.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David G. Zak.