Zebra Crossing Theatre

Deborah: I’m a lesbian.

Danny: As a physical preference, or from political beliefs? –from Sexual Perversity in Chicago, by David Mamet

For lesbian playwright and poet Jane Chambers, there was no possibility of, or reason for, separating her physical preference from her political beliefs. What in David Mamet’s play was a smug joke–the next time we see them, Danny and Deborah have begun an affair–was for Chambers a declaration of identity, principle, and pleasure. That declaration marked her too-brief life (she died in 1983 at age 45 of a brain tumor), and it filled her works with an intensity of commitment that made her a devotedly followed cult figure. It’s a nice irony that the Uptown Center Hull House’s Lerner Theater, where Sexual Perversity in Chicago had its world premiere, is now the setting for The Quintessential Image and In Her Own Words, two one-acts that embody Chambers’s legacy.

Chambers is nowhere near as well-known as, say, Carson McCullers or Tennessee Williams–fellow southerners who also grappled with the stigma and mystery of being homosexual in a disapproving and denying society. Williams and McCullers transmuted their experiences of social rejection and emotional confusion into writings that are at once more universal, more poetically affecting, and less honest than Chambers’s blunter, often awkward efforts. They reached a wider audience, but, their biographies show, it was at considerable psychic cost.

Chambers, born in South Carolina in 1937, was a different kind of artist. Coming of age in the late 1950s and early ’60s, she shared the fervor of the growing civil-rights and feminist movements. A white, she was brought up around black women and found them a nurturing alternative to her abusive father and puritanical mother; a woman, she was disappointed that the limited options presented to her did not include being either a minister or a playwright.

Moving to New York at age 20, she found a niche for herself in the artistic avant-garde of the fledgling off-off-Broadway movement. She also worked in television, eventually winning the distinction of writing the first black situation comedy ever optioned for the medium (it went unproduced because the powers that be considered it too much too soon). Then, in her 30s, she hit her professional and personal stride. The emergence of a proud and liberated gay and lesbian culture in the 1970s and ’80s, in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots, provided her with a cause and an audience.

Though not a particularly subtle artist, Chambers won a loyal following on the strength of several plays that depicted lesbian passions and problems with an unabashed emotionality that made Erich Segal look like Samuel Beckett. A Late Snow, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, and My Blue Heaven sent shock waves through a community of women hungry for affirmation after years of depressing images such as those projected by Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George.

Not that Chambers was all sweetness and light. A Late Snow bitterly addressed the hypocrisy and denial she had known in her own relationships with live-in lovers afraid to declare themselves as more than “roommates.” And her biggest hit, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, hinged on the impending death by cancer of its heroine. (Inspired by the death of one of her friends, the play acquired an eerily prophetic aura when Chambers’s own cancer was diagnosed.) But in Chambers’s plays, when lesbians told the truth about their sexuality, they were rewarded with love and approval, not punished with shame and suicide.

Telling the truth is the theme of Chambers’s final play, The Quintessential Image. A one-act comedy, it displays all of Chambers’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer: it’s full of sassy, ironic humor and gentle concern for its characters, but it beats its initially provocative themes insistently into dull submission. Set in a TV studio, it tells of a legendary woman photographer who, after years of eluding the press, finally agrees to be interviewed for a cultural-affairs talk show. The photographer, Lacy Lanier, is a sort of cross between Margaret Bourke-White and Gertrude Stein who has documented the American experience over several decades while remaining personally invisible. Margaret Foy, the twittering interviewer, is all agog at the prospect of getting Lacy on the air–until, soon into the show, it becomes clear that Lacy is (as Chambers originally considered titling the play) “the quintessential dyke.” The reason she has always declined interviews, Lacy says (sounding quite a lot like Chambers herself), is that she didn’t want to embarrass her mother by talking about her love of women; now that Mama is senile, Lacy figures, it’s high time for her to come out. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with Margaret–who’s worried not only about her “viewers’ sensibilities” but about her own closeted lesbian relationship.

Chambers gets in plenty of jabs at the opinion-shaping establishment by having Lacy reveal that her real motivation in taking all those famous photos was to try–unsuccessfully–to get a decent picture of Belinda, the object of her lifelong, unconsummated infatuation. Lacy’s candid admission that a prize-winning picture of a labor riot was really a failed portrait of Belinda singing the national anthem at a rally causes consternation in Margaret–as does Lacy’s final rumination about having wasted her life in search of the “quintessential image” of a heterosexual woman who doesn’t even like her.

All the key themes of Chambers’s work–and life–are here: the oppressiveness of a well-meaning but straitlaced mother, bemused memories of a sometimes exotic southern upbringing, romantic philandering that leads the philanderer away from true love and self-fulfillment, the link between the creative impulse and childhood rejection, women’s traditionally restricted opportunities, the political Right’s linking of communism and homosexuality (Chambers herself once had to sign a government loyalty oath denying her propensity for either), the stigma of being “born too big,” as Lacy puts it (as a child, Chambers was stung by her father’s misogynistic cracks about her excessive weight), the unreliability of officially sanctioned truths, and of course the need for personal honesty despite the risks. As was Chambers’s wont, these themes are eventually belabored beyond the point where they have any surprises to offer; one is left with a preaching-to-the-converted zealousness that will appeal less to some audiences than to others.

One also can’t help questioning whether the play’s premise doesn’t rest on somewhat shaky ground, even allowing for deliberate exaggeration. Would anyone seriously ask whether a male photographer–Alfred Eisenstadt, say, or Douglas Davis–pursued his art for such simplistic reasons? Even Robert Mapplethorpe, as committed as he was to expressing his vision of erotic beauty in his photos, had something else going on. Certainly a male writer who dared to suggest that a woman’s accomplishments were tied so much to her sexual needs would be attacked as the most extreme kind of chauvinist. But then, Chambers was never too concerned with being politically correct; she defied more ideologically oriented lesbian critics with her unashamed linking of her art with her personal feelings, for better and for worse.

For Zebra Crossing Theatre’s production, director Marlene Zuccaro has teamed The Quintessential Image with In Her Own Words, a short piece that juxtaposes excerpts from Chambers’s work with an account of her life. The pairing of these two plays offers some useful keys to appreciating The Quintessential Image. The flustered talk-show hostess Margaret makes us recall that Chambers herself started out in the TV talk-show genre (as a teenager, she produced and wrote a local show, Youth Pops the Question); and Margaret’s effort to dismiss her own domestic arrangement clearly echoes the hypocrisies of Chambers’s early “roommates.”

In Her Own Words also makes clear the limits of Chambers’s talent: her passionate proselytizing works better in short, inspirational bursts than stretched over the length of even a short one-act. John Glines and Peg Murray, who assembled In Her Own Words from Chambers sources, clearly possess the structural savvy that Chambers’s complete works lack.

But to criticize Chambers isn’t to condemn her: she remains a significant and distinctive minority voice who deserves wider recognition, and Zebra Crossing’s presentation of these plays is a valuable service. It’s also quite entertaining theater. Zuccaro’s direction, the best work I’ve seen her do, captures the earthy humor and delicate vulnerability that permeate Chambers’s sensibility, and the cast is made up of a fine, sensitive ensemble. In In Her Own Words, Jeanne Taylor makes a nice, plainspoken, just slightly spacey Jane opposite Heather Riordan’s more concentrated and businesslike Beth Allen (Chambers’s longtime lover and manager), while Venessa Banks is especially powerful leading the gospel vocals that pervade the play and enacting the fierce street woman heroine of Chambers’s drama Mine, excerpted here. In The Quintessential Image, Pat Gallager’s Lacy recalls Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude–eccentric, giddy, and very wise–while K. Marie (who alternates with Consuelo Allen) has the self-protecting body language of a closeted careerist down pat.

I’ve previously written in these pages about the deaths from AIDS of three valued members of Chicago’s performance community: actor J. Pat Miller, actor-stage manager Tom Biscotto, and sound designer Mike Rasfeld. Last Sunday’s Tribune carried an obituary for the man who helped launch Miller, Biscotto, and Rasfeld on their careers: Gary Tucker, who died in Atlanta December 17 and whose death was only revealed here last week. The Tribune obit noted Tucker’s personal and professional association with Tennessee Williams–he directed Williams’s A House Not Meant to Stand at the Goodman, and also worked with the playwright down south.

But to many of us, Gary Tucker will always be remembered for his work in less illustrious company and circumstances. Under the name Eleven, he founded and directed the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, with which Biscotto, Miller, Rasfeld, and others did some of their earliest and best work. An unofficial offshoot of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Godzilla Rainbow Troupe lived up to its name. It was monstrous and beautiful; it breathed fire and gave off a glowing wet afterglow; it had a hell of an impact, and it was gone almost as soon as it had started. In such productions as Whores of Babylon, Turds in Hell, and Tobacco Road, Tucker brought “genderfuck” (aka “cosmic drag”) theater to Chicago, mixing and matching sexual identities with a whimsical disregard for propriety or credibility. It was gaudy, cheap, funny, sad, coarse, delicate. Just like Gary Tucker. May he rest in peace.