As someone who has always tried to find a shred of redeeming social value in even the most depressing situations, I'm convinced that within a surprisingly short time the AIDS crisis has elevated the once-dreaded obscene phone call into a new and exciting art form. When I first started receiving these coarsely sensual greetings, I felt an obligation to feign a certain amount of righteous indignation. After a while, however, I chose to regard my new and lewd awakenings as deliciously decadent invitations to participate in an increasingly provocative stream of sexual technobabble emanating from the mouths of creative gay minds. Here's why:
Something inside me snapped on that revelatory morning when my phone rang and I awoke to the voice of a strange man who asked if I felt like beating off with him. "How often have I had my peace of mind ruined by telemarketing solicitations from magazine subscription services and insurance firms?" I wondered. "How much money have I lost to Ma Bell for all those long distance phone calls to wrong numbers and answering machines? What about all those requests from the Salvation Army, Police Athletic League and that nonprofit agency for the handicapped which keeps trying to sell me lightbulbs? Or those dizzy public relations hacks who keep calling from the East Coast without remembering about the three-hour time difference? Wise up, old buddy," I snickered. "You deserve a break, today!"
With that thought in mind, I reached under the covers and opened up my office's Customer Services Department for business. And you may rest assured that it was not with a gob of McDonalds' special sauce that I stained my sheets before I hung up the phone!
Since then I've become increasingly aware of the perverse ways in which the AIDS crisis has helped gay men to improve their vocabularies, sharpen their word skills and re-invent the long lost art of storytelling through their participation in phone sex. For all I know, phone sex fantasies may be making an invaluable contribution to the ongoing battle against illiteracy in America. How so? Simply because, in addition to learning new ways to manipulate old instruments, callers must develop a firm grasp on the English language if they are to succeed in their lurid endeavors.
Why, just the other day I told a caller that what he really wanted was to be tightly bound, mercilessly gagged, have his body shaved like a newborn baby's skin and then be forced to sit in abject humiliation (helplessly hog-tied on the cold porcelain floor of his bathtub) while ten hairy leathermen drenched him in stinging cascades of recycled beer. The delighted grunts and squeals on the other end of the line made me wonder if my friend hadn't misinterpreted my words to mean that he had just won the California State Lottery!
Gay phone sex provides the curious inspiration for Robert Chesley's play Jerker, which is appropriately subtitled "A Pornographic Elegy With Redeeming Social Value and A Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls -- Many of Them Dirty." Thanks to the folks at Helping Hand Productions, I recently caught a performance of Chesley's play in New York and feel that, along with Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, it ranks as one of the most honestly moving and down-to-earth pieces of gay theatre to emerge in years.
Chesley's one-act drama chronicles the growing relationship between two gay men, frightened by the AIDS crisis, who become steady phone sex companions until one of them is stricken with Pneumocystis and dies from the disease. As directed by Nicholas Deutsch, there isn't much in Jerker which could offend anyone in the audience unless they've been recruited from PTL's Heritage Amusement Park in North Carolina.
Like Eric Overmyer's On the Verge, this is really a play about words, fantasy and the ways in which we use the English language to stretch the monochromatic landscapes of our daily lives into cum-filled technicolor sunsets. Chesley's drama has many poignant moments (this is a tearjerker as well) which are not so much rooted in the AIDS crisis as in the frailty of the human condition. J.R., as performed by the incredibly handsome Jay Corcoran, is not just some hot and hunky clone whose sultry voice enjoys a mischievious predilection toward phone sex. In the arena of real life (where his unseen telephone companion must never tread) he is a semi-paralyzed Viet Nam veteran who can only move about on crutches.
The phone friendship which develops between J.R. and Bert (played by John Finch) allows the second man to pour out his anguish over a friend's physical deterioration due to AIDS and be comforted by J.R.'s favorite fantasy (a tale which has nothing to do with sex but has everything to do with a deep-seated desire for some intensely fulfilling warmth and affection).
Jerker, which is filled with hearty laughs, a few annoying moments from the ubiquitous answering machine and, at the end, some painful tears should be seen by everyone who reads this newspaper.
Although I, personally, have never been turned on by snuff films, I must doff my hat to the Houston Grand Opera for the intelligence and artistic sensitivity with which it recently mounted a new production of Salome. Fancifully designed by Jim Dine and straightforwardly directed by Francesca Zambello, HGO's Salome benefitted in large part from its use of the written word.
For this production (the first of Strauss's opera which I have experienced with Supertitles) HGO stuck as closely as possible to Oscar Wilde's original language, thus giving its audiences a stronger sense of what originally made Salome so shocking. By today's standards, Wilde's sensuously evocative language might seem tame. But the curious balance achieved between the sung portions of the opera and the Dance of the Seven Veils became an artistic achievement the likes of which I have never before experienced. Initially, when Salome began her dance, I felt satiated by the richness of the projected text. As the dance progressed I was increasingly won over by the orchestra's playing and, finally, swept off my feet by conductor John DeMain's interpretation of the score.
HGO's two casts featured Josephine Barstow's marvelously obsessed Princess contrasted with Catherine Lamy's full-voiced yet touchingly child-like Salome. While Wieslaw Ochman was a servicable Herod, I was much more impressed with Graeme Matheson-Bruce's performance -- the first time I've heard a tenor who could actually sing Strauss's music from beginning to end. Ingvar Wixell was a superb Jokanaan (Roger Roloff sang the role in the second cast). Decked out in pastel capes and a towering John Sex fright wig, Rosalind Elias's Herodias was very much a sight for sore eyes.
And when one takes into account the woman who called the box office to find out if she could buy tickets to Salmonella, the whole thing ended up being a pretty heady affair!
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 11, 1987.