Relationships, gender and identity figure prominently in two very personal scripts
Defining one’s gay or lesbian experience is a process, which for better and worse has inspired all kinds of theatrical endeavors. Two shows coming up have special significance for the gay community, and while diverse in their approaches, are both about the journey of self-discovery within the cultural context of a sexual minority.
Justin Deabler is probably best known as a cast member of “The Real World: Hawaii,” but he is also a lawyer, playwright and gay activist. He readily acknowledges that his bully pulpit is the direct result of his TV fame, but unlike other reality TV survivors, he’s aiming higher than “Hollywood Squares.”
“If you have something to share, fame helps you get to do it,” he said.
Deabler is the author a new play, “Contracts” which runs through November 20.
“It began as a graduation requirement from [Harvard] law school,” he explained. “I did it instead of writing a paper.”
He joked that the idea of a play came up because he was tired of footnoting.
The play is essentially about the contracts—often unspoken—that we enter into in any of our relationships. During his editing of the play, same-sex marriage became a hot-button issue.
“It became interesting to think about how the law is reflecting these relationships and changes their character,” he said. “You can assume when the state becomes involved in a relationship it will always modify the character of that relationship, but it is never a black-and-white issue. I wanted to talk about [gay relationships] in a way that’s real and these aspects of commitment and fidelity and what makes us stay with people. It’s an issue that lots of gay people struggle with.”
Deabler admits that it is an intellectual journey, but he suggests that for gay and straight relationships, it’s essential to determine whether love is a bargain or a gift. Deabler believes it is a gift and warns against the expectation of reciprocity in a relationship.
“The more you treat a relationship as a bargain instead of a gift, the more the complications,” he argued.
Ultimately, he says, it’s about having options—the option to marry or not being the central contract that is being explored in the play. At 27, though, Deabler knows that he is in a different place than many people and hopes that the play will provoke thought and discussion not just on the topic of gay marriage but on all the interpersonal contracts we engage in.
Particularly in gay relationships, Deabler believes, the discussion has been cloaked in shame in the past and still is for many older people. However, for him and his partner of five years, “we can’t help stumbling over it.” He believes, and one hopes he’s right, that the inability to avoid the issue and the growing sense, particularly among young people, that as adults they deserve equality under the law, will ultimately make gay marriage inevitable. That option though, he cautions, is not the answer; it is merely a step on the way to figuring out who we are in the context of our culture.
A far more visceral and personal story is being told in “Sisters, Such Devoted Sisters,” the first person story of a Glasgow drag queen, written and performed by Russell Barr. The show is coming direct from the Edinburgh Fringe under the auspices of the newly formed Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation, founded to bring the best of the Scottish festival to New York.
Barr said that despite the warm notices that cited the one-man show’s “larger than life” characters, for him it is a play about famil
“I don’t think it’s primarily a gay piece at all,” he explained. “It’s a violent culture that I’m talking about, and it plays with the notion of confessional theater. It’s very documentary and plays with the idea of ‘what is truth?’ and leaves a lot of unanswered questions.”
He added that the characters are not larger than life to him.
“They are very real to me,” he said. “They are, really, small characters that I can play. They seem like the regular people who I grew up with; these extraordinary characters that brought me out. That was why I was very used to it. They seem totally normal to me.”
The idea for the play came when Barr was speaking with an arts board about a potential project. He started telling the story of what ultimately became the play, and that became the idea. It became the story of a man who creates an unlikely identity for himself in the face of some horrific and harrowing experiences. It’s his first time as writer and performer, and his first time in New York, but for all of that he’s undaunted and excited while he works on his second play, which will include 12 Jack Russell Terriers on the stage.
“It will be real chaos, and I think there’s not enough chaos on the stage,” he said.
Whether focusing on the emotional as in the current piece or going canine in the piece that is on the boards, Barr is all about creating theater that is engaging for an audience.
“It challenges the whole idea of being able to say, ‘Oh, that’s lovely. I’m glad I don’t live that,’” ‘he said.
Both pieces are designed to be provocative, immediate and daring in their unique ways. In other words, theater at its most vibrant.
Justin Deabler, the playwright of “Contracts,” about love and power at Harvard, is a former cast member of “The Real World: Hawaii,” a 1999 series that is considered a forerunner to many of today’s reality TV shows. Currently, Deabler practices criminal law with a Manhattan law firm. “Contracts” draws on his experience as a law student at Harvard.