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Queer theater has lost its radical juice. No surprise, given that the queer movement, which began in the ’80s as a politically confrontational response to the AIDS emergency, has been rendered almost completely moribund. Protease cocktails, the wonder drug we can’t help anxiously wondering about, transformed the national view of the epidemic from a lethal battle over social injustice to a (keep your fingers crossed) medical maintenance phenomenon. But gratitude for the multitude of extended lives has kept us from acknowledging the persistence of the underlying societal inequities, to say nothing of the complexity of treatment issues. The connection between HIV risk and poverty hasn’t changed, nor has the stymieing problem of health care access—hot-button issues that most politicians would prefer to keep buried with their sex scandals. How then did we move so quickly from the revolutionary theatricality of ACT UP to the decadent inanity of Will & Grace?
Sure, it’s nice that the mainstream has welcomed us into their comfortable mediocrity. But assimilation has encouraged us to drop our communal guard—a dangerous trend given that every gay and lesbian youth in this country remains a potential Matthew Shepard victim, domestic partnerships still aren’t widely recognized, and the religious right dreams alternately of saving and outlawing us. As our mourning decreased, so did our militancy—a natural phenomenon perhaps, but troubling when a hard-won heightened consciousness devolves into an oblivion-seeking Queer as Folk mentality.
A telling sign of the depoliticized times is the way the current “Queer@Here” festival playbill defines “queer” strictly with its dictionary meaning, leaving out any historical mention of the way the word was reclaimed by AIDS activists as a rallying cry against a perniciously narrow status quo. That we still need queer theater artists to challenge the limited roles prescribed for us, as well as to give form to our underrepresented struggles, seems to have been lost sight of. Why, for example, haven’t more playwrights followed in the footsteps of Craig Lucas’s The Dying Gaul, which daringly questioned how we can live as sexual beings in an age of devastating loss and 24-hour Internet chat rooms. Suffice it to say that it’s unlikely network TV will be airing such homo scenes as concern for an ex lover’s long-term health, the erotic exile of middle age, or the quandary of monogamy versus open relationships. The theatrical silence post-Angels in America on meaningful gay and lesbian subjects has been appalling.
“Queer@Here” should provide a forum for dilemmas ignored by the rest of the entertainment media. But now in its sixth year, the event seems mired in its own perfunctory survival. Ogre-ish as it is to point out, the festival’s marginalization stems not from any lingering sexual stigma but from the negligible quality of its offerings. If the work were better curated, more people would undoubtedly care. Yes, the impulse to reflect “the diversity of tastes, talents, and types that make up the alphabet of LGBT culture” is a noble one. But showcasing largely novices within a fuzzy framework of “witty, gripping and titillating queer performance” doesn’t do much to enhance our political or aesthetic palette.
If I seem to be resisting writing about the festival’s two opening theater pieces, it’s certainly not because they aren’t deserving of comment. Bogie the Faggot is a willfully sloppy cabaret created by Kyle Jarrow and Travis Chamberlain that registers more favorably as a style-in-progress than a finished product. The setup involves a private dick named Bogie (a punk queer with a men’s-room sex habit and a Humphrey Bogart chapeau) and his piano accompanist, P-Man, whose musical interludes command more attention than the dopey noirish tale the two men seem bored to relate.
Though their antics border at times on amateurishness, the duo have a gay-dude comic rapport that’s fun to watch. Jarrow, chain-smoking and downing beers, makes ironic sallies behind the piano, while Chamberlain, serving as emcee, routinely pulls out his water gun to revive his flagging audience. The boys need more time to theatrically bake, but they have definite promise as a Hedwig-style lounge act, minus the giddy transgender shtick.
Touchscape, a multimedia one-person show written and performed by James Scruggs that’s billed as a work in progress, provides cartoonish sketches of gay African Americans. A father and son find themselves helplessly locked into a pattern of incestuous abuse. An insatiable “bottom” addicted to anonymous outdoor encounters realizes that his last stranger just lied about wearing a condom. An aging stud ogling the meat at a stripper joint confesses, “I could have had anyone, so I chose everyone . . . one at a time. . . . Now there’s no one.” Though nothing is rendered with dramatic force, there’s an emotional authenticity that honors the complexity of regretful choices.
Still, as a gay man in his mid thirties who once held such hope for an integrated and engaged queer community, it’s hard for me not to be disappointed by the lackluster turn in our theatrical and political affairs. But with insubstantial productions like these, who can you blame for staying home and watching a faggoty sitcom?