Thursday, October 31, 2013

God Save This Queen

The bottom line is simple: Coming out of the closet is not only good for anyone who is gay, it helps the people in his life secure a desperate grasp on reality. Once a person lets his friends, family, and the general public know how he defines himself with regard to his sexual orientation, there need be no more guessing, no more denial and, perhaps most important, no more diversionary games.

That means no more time spent waxing eloquent about a fictional girlfriend who lives in a far away city, bringing a "beard" to social functions, lying to parents who want to know when they can expect grandchildren, or putting up with pressure from married friends who wish that the single person in their lives would finally tie the knot so that everyone in their social circle could be safely and smugly coupled.

Many of us can still recall the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when a gay man's family learned that their son was a homosexual at the same time they discovered that he was dying. With 1996's heinous Defense of Marriage Act finally declared unconstitutional, the standard wedding vow --  "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part" -- has eliminated any doubts about which relatives are legally allowed into a hospital room or have the right to make crucial decisions with regard to a dying man's wishes.

As more people have come to understand -- and reject -- the abject cruelty of the closeted life, a growing awareness of what the love that previously dared not speak its name truly entails has led to greater audience awareness of the challenges faced by LGBT characters who have attempted to remain in the closet. Two recent productions examined this situation through surprising and often challenging perspectives.

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An extremely poignant film from South Korea entitled Two Weddings and a Funeral (which was screened at the 2013 Frameline LGBT Film Festival) offers a stiff reminder of what gay life can be like for LGBT people living in more repressive societies than, say, San Francisco. Openly gay director Gwan-soo Kimjho's protagonists deftly make their way through a complex romantic farce (complete with slamming doors and mistaken identities).

Min-soo (Kim Dong-yun) is a closeted OBGYN doctor who has a tightly-knit group of gay male friends. In order to protect the secret of his sexual orientation, he's chosen the perfect medical specialty (delivering babies) as a professional cover and hatched a brilliant plan for his personal life.

By marrying a lesbian OBGYN doctor (who is on staff at the same hospital), the two LGBT physicians can go through with the charade of a fake honeymoon in Thailand. Upon their return home, they can carry on their professional lives free from any snooping while pursuing their separate love interests. The shy Min-soo soon falls in love with an attractive young man named Suk (Song Yong Jin) who he meets at a gay bar.

Meanwhile, Hyo-Jin (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung) and her lover (whose apartment is next to the one occupied by Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin) now have the perfect cover to allow them to adopt a baby. Although, legally, the child will be adopted by Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin, in reality, it will be raised by Hyo-Jin and her lover, Seo-Young (Jung Ae-Youn).

As expected the adoption interview provides for some expected laughs when Min-Soo and Hyo-Jin pretend to be a heterosexual couple. However, complications arise when Min-Soo's parents arrive unexpectedly while their son is in bed with his boyfriend.

To make matters worse, one of the hospital staff's biggest gossips spots Min-Soo kissing Suk in a parking lot and quickly spreads the word at work, thus bringing an unintended load of shame down upon the shoulders of Hyo-Jin, who is forced into the role of  the dumb wife who didn't know her husband was gay. Hyo-Jin's real concerns, however, are whether she will be forced to quit her job and whether this revelation will threaten the family she hopes to build with Seo-Young and their adopted child.

Seo-Young (Jung Ae-Youn) and Hyo-Jin (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung)
are lovers in Two Weddings and a Funeral

When the pressure gets to be too much for Min-Soo, he visits one of his gay friends and ends up spending the night at the man's apartment. Unlike Min-Soo, this man grew up in a rural area where there were no gay people that he knew of. To be able to live in a big city, have a circle of gay friends, and occasionally perform in drag has meant the world to him. He can't imagine his life getting any better.

When Min-Soo asks if any of his friend's family members know that he is gay, the young man simply states that there is one person to whom he has told every little detail of his life. That person, the one who loves him unconditionally, is his dog. In its own way, his astonishing confession encapsulates the loneliness of growing up gay in hostile surroundings. Unfortunately, this loving friend's sudden, unexpected death soon leads to the funeral mentioned in the film's title and Min-Soo's political awakening.

Min-soo (Kim Dong-yun) thinks of his deceased friend
on his wedding day in Two Weddings and a Funeral

When all of the professional and familial hassles have been ironed out for the two OBGYN doctors -- and a double wedding can be held for Min-Soo and Suk (as well as for Hyo-Jin and Seo-Young) -- Min-Soo dedicates the memory of the day's happiness to his deceased friend and to the importance of living one's life honestly. You'll have to see the entire movie to understand the full dramatic impact of this moment (you'd never guess it from the film's trailer).

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Elizabeth Gilbert may have hit the jackpot with her popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love but, in Next Fall, playwright Geoffrey Nauffts has taken a different approach to happiness which could be described as "Suck, Swallow, Pray." Although Next Fall deals with the death of an otherwise healthy gay man in the prime of life, this is not a play about AIDS. It is, instead, a play about how a gay couple negotiates the terms of their relationship when one is an atheist and the other is an Evangelical Christian.

Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) and Adam (Danny Scheie)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In an article published earlier this year in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nauffts wrote:
"I met the love of my life not long after I turned 40. He was a Christian, and as someone who’s pretty much had an aversion to religion my whole life, this was the last thing I ever expected. We struggled to find some common ground, but in the end, it was that inexplicable thing called 'love' that kept us together. Eleven years later, we’re still going strong, and he’s still very much a mystery to me. Sensing there was something universal in the journey we’ve shared, I wrote a play about two men -- a believer and a nonbeliever -- who, five years into their relationship, are faced with a life-threatening accident that forces them (and those around them) to grapple with some of the more significant issues we face today.

One of those issues is same-sex marriage. I’m not really a 'political' person, but I vote and pay taxes. I do jury duty. I even volunteer from time to time. I eat and drink in moderation, don’t live beyond my means and I’ve never filed for bankruptcy. I’d say I’m about as close to being a model citizen as you can get. Why, then, am I not afforded the same unalienable rights my fellow citizens enjoy (some of whom are less law-abiding than I am)? Why does the religion of some in this country subject so many others to bigotry and discrimination? Isn’t that one of the basic tenets our country was founded on: the freedom to believe (or not believe) as we see fit, and to not be persecuted for doing so?

I wrote Next Fall as sort of a wake-up call in response to these questions. I wanted my partner (who was not out to his evangelical family at the time) to imagine what it would look like if we were ever in a situation where he was laying in a coma and I had no access, no rights, no voice. Well, he heard the call. Not only does his family know about me now, I’ve spent holidays with them. And, like so many of our gay couples across the country, we’re hoping to get married soon and perhaps raise children. But, no matter how far we’ve come, we’re still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. This was again proven just recently when Roger Gorley, a gay man from Missouri, was hauled off in handcuffs after refusing to leave the bedside of his partner of five years."
Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) and Adam (Danny Scheie)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Next Fall is told in a series of flashbacks as, following an automobile accident, friends and family of Luke (Adam Shonkwiler) nervously gather at the hospital while awaiting news of his medical condition. An aspiring actor and former cater-waiter who has been working in a candle shop, Luke is the kind of lovably handsome gay man whose optimism is unshakable. Devoutly religious, he prays before every meal and after having sex. One gets the suspicion that, though Luke may be in his thirties, he probably waits up on Christmas Eve, still hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.
  • Holly (Lindsey Gates) is Luke's close friend and employer at the candle shop, the first to arrive at the hospital.
  • Brandon (Ryan Tasker) is one of Luke's closest Christian friends. A successful realtor who admits to being fiercely (and solely) attracted to black men, Brandon's religiosity has -- and always will prevent him from acting on his sexual desires. The fact that Luke has entered into a loving relationship with another man has caused an irrevocable rift in their friendship.
  • Adam (Danny Scheie) is Luke's lover, whose insecurities about his body, about growing old, and about being loved by a younger man are coupled with the sharp cynicism of a life-long atheist.
  • Arlene (Rachel Harker) is Luke's biological mother, who separated from his father when Luke was very young. She has never known that her son is gay.
  • Butch (James Carpenter) is Luke's deeply devout father who, though he may once have worked for a famous gay man, has never understood that his theatrically-inclined son might be a homosexual.
Butch (James Carpenter) and his first wife, Arlene, (Rachel Harker)
are Luke's parents in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Nauffts goes to great lengths to portray Luke as a young man whose life has been enhanced by his faith rather than as a homosexual who has been demonized and ostracized by his faith. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, San Jose Repertory Theatre's production of Next Fall does a solid job of investigating the conflicts faced by gay couples when dealing with homophobic family members. As Nauffts explains:
"I didn't have any organized religion in my life growing up. I didn't have any kind of faith, yet I always had a certain fascination with it. I don't know why that is. But I feel that I've suffered because of that. In many ways I'm grateful not to have had any of those constraints growing up. No one telling me, "You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's not 'right.'" No one except myself. But also, by the same token, I feel that there have definitely been times in my life when I've been envious of that comfort, that peace that I experience in people who've been in my life throughout the years. At the risk of sounding corny, I’ve always believed in man’s innate goodness -- that underneath our differences, the desire to love and be loved connects us all. I think that was the starting point for me, wanting to explore that. This is what my play is about. If an atheist and a Christian can work it out, why can’t the rest of the nation?"
Luke's homophobic father, Butch (James Carpenter) chats with
his son's lover, Adam (Danny Scheie), in a scene from Next Fall
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One of the reasons it's so hard to work these things out can be found in San Jose Rep's study guide (which goes to great length to address issues like Christianity's treatment of LGBT people, hospital visitation rights for same sex couples, as well as family issues and end-of-life issues for LGBT people). Although several pages are devoted to discussing Christianity, the Rapture, and how religion impacts the lives of LGBT people, there is absolutely no space devoted to a discussion of what atheism involves, how and why gay people abandon religion and gravitate to atheism, or why atheism is one of the fastest growing movements in a society whose Evangelicals never stop insisting that the Founding Fathers wanted the United States to be a Christian nation (they did not).

As a gay Jew in his sixties who comes from a family of life-long atheists, this strikes me as a remarkable lack of insight. Or, since we're dealing with questions of faith, perhaps we should call it a "sin of omission." Perhaps this indicates that it is now easier (and more politically acceptable) for a theatre's educational outreach program to teach students about same-sex marriage than it is to educate them about atheism.

One of the key points of Next Fall involves Adam's willingness to wait for Luke to wise up to reality. But just before Luke ends up dying in a hospital, Adam becomes convinced that their relationship can't work -- that much as he loves and cherishes Luke, he can no longer stifle the intellectual scorn he feels for Luke's religious brainwashing which has increasingly become an obstacle to their future happiness. As Adam tells Luke "I wish you loved me more than you love "him.'"

Adam (Danny Scheie) and Luke (Adam Shonkwiler)
are lovers in Next Fall (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Danny Scheie and Adam Shonkwiler give strong performances as Adam and Luke with Rachel Harker and James Carpenter delivering powerful dramatic turns as Luke's parents. Lindsay Gates and Ryan Tasker lend sturdy support as two of Luke's closest friends. I was particularly impressed with the flexibility and fluidity of Annie Smart's set design.

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