Thursday, March 24, 2016

HUEY: IN A REVOLUTIONARY FASHION





MEET HUEY
These blog entries are fueled by the agonies of racial tension that became something I was compelled to write about in 2014 when Trayvon was murdered; like AIDS became something I was compelled to write about when the vicious disease began ravaging my generation in 1988. I’ve submerged myself in over a quarter of a century of material: uncommon, inexplicable, and inducing unstoppable response. 

Race was frequently explored in my work, beginning with Big Red, a mother and a whore whose monologue confronted the disease without sentimentality, with humor, without self-pity, with raucous candor. In the early Nineties, I created Myron (based on the classic Cyrano de Bergerac) a play in which the black leading man, bedbound but defiantly romantic, dictates letters to his handsome cousin to be delivered to his equally comely nurse, signed by the dying man.

I was primed for the mergence of the personal and the political. Like any revolution worth fighting—the adoption of a five-month old black infant by a single, HIV-positive white man—was daunting. My daughter, Katherine, a thriving twenty-one year old artist, has become many things in life; among them, being my teacher.

During the past few years which included the birthing a movement on the streets of St. Louis where I grew up (Michael Brown attended the same high school that I did), I’ve experienced the embodiment of why black lives matter in the impassioned words, the imprinted sorrows, the profound teachings of my daughter.

I return to the monologue, a form that seems to best suit the depiction of my myriad subjects and their implicit theatricality. Meet Huey.


HUEY
Never seen my father in a suit. Never once gone to see a movie together. Never able to comfort me at night when I was a little boy, crying out. I’m not able to comfort him at night, now, when he’s an old man, crying out. Pops went to prison in 1986, the victim of a former movie star’s political agenda and a political party’s outright racism. His third strike struck me as bullshit—not enough ganja to get a buzz. His public defender slept—didn’t shut his eyes, take a nap, grab a few motherfuckin’ winks—he slept. Like snoring slept. Didn’t matter because they’d already decided to lock Pops up for Life With the Possibility of Parole. It is the word “possibility” that’s a bit confusing. Like there’s a possibility I will turn white if I watch enough Tom Hanks movies; like there’s a possibility I will turn white if I listen to Barry Manilow sing love songs. My daddy has had a handful of parole hearings, all jerking with justice. So while there is a possibility my dad and I will go on a fishing trip in the next decade, there is also the distinct motherfucking possibility that he will die in that jail because he had less than a thimble full of marijuana—which is legal now, dig?—in his 



car where his fuckin’ gloves shoulda been. Have you ever seen a pair of gloves in a glove compartment? I’ve seen pill bottles, used condoms, unfixable sunglasses, year-old French fries; but I ain’t ever seen any gloves. My pops is seventy-six years old—walks with a cane, blind in one eye, bad heart; the only reason they keep dudes like my daddy alive is to keep bringing beaucoup bucks into America’s whorehouse for prisoners. You don’t have to be alive like The Rock is alive; you just have to be breathin’, like Sylvester Stallone is breathin’. My dad used to be pretty buff—that’s when there was a place in the joint to exercise. Gone. He also used to read some half-decent books (sometimes we’d read the same book together, like a book club for two). No more books. He even took some classes—gourmet cooking classes, I (naw, I’m fuckin’ with you)—but he did take some solid classes. Not anymore. In fact, they have made prisons a place for prisoners to do nothing but commit crimes. They provide all the shit from the outside—drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes all three at once. He has resisted all of those; he is, in fact, a model prisoner. There is no way he will get out and offend again—unless you can imagine a half-blind mothefucker in his seventies with a cane and a bad tinker robbin’ a Seven-Eleven. That said, this is perverse way to deal with old men who are fuckin’ dryin’ up in prison cells—alone, consumed by guilt and fear in spite of exemplary behavior for more than half o’ their lives—let ‘em rot rather than release them. But in spite of unspeakable obstacles, primarily the depression that darkens his every day, he and I have (especially in the past few years) forged a father-son bond. And I’m not suggesting this is “Father Knows Best”—feels more like “Done Dad Walking.” We have struggled, confronted, argued, accused, hated, forgiven, accepted, understood and then repeated the whole routine over again. And again. The most valuable stuff my dad has taught me really didn’t take place until the last coupla years. I mean, sure, I knew he was black. And I kinda knew I was. But I didn’t know what he’d been through. Especially his experiences in Vietnam. He went to Nam in the late Sixties, to keep out of trouble. He had already dealt with my sister’s death and my mother’s increasing instability. He was almost 
We have struggled, confronted, argued, accused, hated, forgiven, accepted, understood and then repeated the whole routine over again. 
thirty (and not a complete stranger to the police department) in 1967:  the year before the shit hit the fan in America: Martin Luther King shot dead, Bobby Kennedy shot dead. And here’s somethin’ I didn’t know much about: The Black Panthers. I knew I was named after Huey Newton, not Baby Huey.  But I didn’t know that some of the Panthers went to Vietnam to recruit; they fuckin’ knew that most black men didn’t want to be servin’ a country that didn’t fuckin’ serve them. But why did they name me Huey and not Bobby (after Bobby Seale) or Stokely after (Stokely Carmichael)?

* * * 

In the midst of the recent Superbowl halftime entertainment, my dad—watchin’ from a maximum state prison—could smell controversy like a hound dog. There I was on TV, positioned in a way he’d never seen me before and his tolerance turned to pride. Pops had long since gotten over the embarrassment part (his sissy son bein’ a dancer)—especially as I got more successful—but I sensed that it was still uncomfortable for him. It wasn’t until the halftime show that my dancing reignited something in him: the demand for social justice. There I am, one of Bruno’s dancers, simultaneously taunting and flirting with the camera, in a dance caught fire with Beyonce that would be praised (and damned) as an acknowledgement of the Panthers’ fifty year anniversary. I visited him a few weeks after the Super Bowl—for reasons I was unable to immediately explain—because he was so excited about me dancin’, dancin’ with “precise  political purpose,” he said. He was fuckin’ 


lit, on a roll, pushing more energy than I’d seen in years; it was the first time I heard that my daddy had actually thought—truly entertained the idea—of becoming a Panther. He spelled out some of the detailed demands of the Panthers, from memory:  “We want freedom for all black and oppressed people now held in U.S. federal, state, county, city and military prisons and jails we want trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country.” The news I came to tell my daddy might sweep this rush of paternal pride off balance, reminding him that I was not really the thuggish dude on TV—I was, in real life, still his imperfect boy. Years ago, I had told him that I was gay (or maybe my mama had told him) but talkin’ about my relationship was not in his comfort zone even though I had to talk to him about it that day; the day he was so riled up over his political background that he couldn’t even hit “pause” during his monologue.

 * * *

I had to talk to him about Max that day, not I had to talk to him about “it.” He has a name. Max—I thought I shouldn’t bring Max up—especially if it would douse this rare moment of ecstasy he seemed to be experiencing. Max. Shame on me. His name is Max. Motherfuckin’ shame; I still can’t wriggle out of that shame costume: impossible to shed, relentless snake shame. Max. Max was my first dance teacher, while I was still in high school. Can you imagine the flak my mama musta received from relatives, neighbors, busybodies? A young black kid choosing to be a dancer rather than a basketball player, not even a singer? Listen, being a rapper would be easier to admit to than “my son wants to be a dancer.” Might as well have said, “My son wants to wrap himself in a rainbow flag and listen to Lena Horne albums.” Max did introduce me to Lena Horne. Even though I wasn’t interested in singing, it was Miss Lena’s “precision” that he dug. And, after a couple of years of getting closer and closer to Max, I introduced my teacher to my mama who knew he was white but had no idea he was that white: white-white, white of the red, white and blue, white of the cotton on Southern plantations. You feel me? But when she looked into the whites of his eyes, she knew he loved me. This was before he ever laid a hand on me except to position a flailing leg akimbo into a strong or gently pressing down on my shoulders when I had a tendency to use my rounded shoulders as armor, makin’ me look like a punk-ass turtle.  When my dad went in the joint, when I was still in diapers, mama knew I needed a male role model. A black male role model. But they weren’t hangin’ out on our street corner, sippiin’ green tea, wearin’ t-shirts that said, “Cool Hip Black Role Model Here.” So I—subconsciously—sought out father figures. Max was one of the first. I guess my mama’s job, the way she saw it, was to keep me out of the joint; to keep me from becoming a drug addict; to keep me from gettin’ AIDS. Shortly after I got out of diapers, she started teachin’ me to put on condoms. So I knew how to protect myself Down There. And I think she sensed the gay thing back when I was a little kid, more intent on tappin’ than rappin’. At least tap dancing had some inherent negro in it but when I chose ballet, it was like sayin’ goodbye to bein’ a superstud. A young black man in ballet shoes implied things my mother had never even considered. Her life with my father was spent in virtually all-black neighborhoods where the homies who weren’t career criminals were nine-to-fiven’ in their blue color jobs. These dudes weren’t sittin’ around reading Maya Angelou and listenin’ to Miles Davis. My mama lived in a hyper masculine black man’s world. I was a good street dancer—I could pass, y’know, a kinda tough guy—tougher than Tatum Channing, anyway. Oh, yah, I coulda stripped for cash but I wanted to be all kinds of a dancer, not shaking my black ass in front 
But they weren’t hangin’ out on our street corner, sippiin’ green tea, wearin’ t-shirts that said, “Cool Hip Black Role Model Here.”
of some white ass broads who would tip me with their kids’ lunch money. I wanted to be a real dancer. I looked up Dancing School in the Yellow Pages; mama’s eyes nearly rolled outta her head. A school where a white man taught young boys to be ballet dancers sounded like a Dateline episode. Yet she knew it would keep me off the streets. She already lost one kid to drugs. The sister I never saw, never hugged; never had a chance to be her brother. For this kid without a father to call in the night, for this kid without a sister to hug, Max was not hard to love. For this fifteen year old to fall in love with. When we met, he was thirty, fifteen times two. Max was also attentive, handsome as all get out, a seductive mixture of both what we’ve come to label as “masculine” and “feminine.”  It was a combo that appealed to me even though I had no clue that those characteristics would tour jete into our private lives, even into the bedroom. I seduced Max first. After taking class from him for nearly three years, feeling his electric currents as he moved by me, as my sweat sometimes flew in his direction, landing on his bare shoulder or leaving a fleeting mark on his t-shirt (he wore crisp white t-shirts). I just fuckin’ couldn’t wait another minute. I had to feel myself submerged, under his body, every square inch of it. And then feel my strength melting into his submission. Our first date was when I asked him which show (playin’ in town) he’d rather take me to [Black Brat Negotiates White Privilege]:  a revival of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk or a newly conceived rendering of Romeo and Juliet.  We both knew that the opera’s subtext would speak to what was happening between us, reasons the lovers were star-crossed could fit into many scenarios: race, class, age. I parked my car in front of Max’s and we drove in his to the thea-tuh. (Didn’t want to be seen drivin’ up to the fancy theater in my hoooptie.) I’d fantasized this plot repeatedly. After the performance, I’d come in for a drink and we’d talk about the ballet’s intensity, especially as it applied to today’s racist world. We spoke about the details of the dance parts; what we liked, what we didn’t.  We had another drink. This was the year that Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar and Halle Berry won for Best Actress. Max loved the movies and actually spoke about the racism and what a big deal it was that those two darkies won. After our third, I convinced Max that I should not drive home. A black teenager behind the wheel is reason enough to get arrested; forget it if you slightly veered one way or the other. Speaking of veering—even though Max was fiddlin’ around with sheets—white-white sheets, almost blinding-to put on the living room couch—I veered him into his bedroom and into his bed where I made it clear I wanted him to fiddle with me. I’d messed around with other dudes before but Max was a man: the feel of his soft skin sliding up and down against mine; the feel of his soft tongue wordlessly speaking to mine; the feel of his tough cock virtually wrestling with mine. The taste of his sweat in my mouth; the taste of my tears. This was, for me, new—as new as morning. And morning was when I would leave; different than I was before. I was a man—well, more of a man—who made love to a man: mixing our colors and smells, conversing with our senses not our words. However, my mother insisted on words. Crisp words, heated, right out of her oven of a mouth afire: “Where did you sleep?” A beat. “Where do you think?” I answered.`` And that was that. Over. Never to be an issue between us; her acceptance—maybe it was relief?—could be seen on every contour, and every flaw of her beautiful face.” We both know about life’s numbing imperfections, don’t we? Don’t we, mama?” I said. I don’t remember when I told her that Max was HIV-positive. It really was a non-issue; we were “safe” as could be; he was as healthy as a stallion. My white stallion.

* * *

I was dripping wet when I came offstage which wasn’t like coming off stage as much as it was like going onto another stage. There were flashes still poppin’ in our faces, only up-close now, cameras up our asses. And reporters. “How did it feel…?” “Was it as powerful for you…?” I just wanted to get to my phone because I had some feeling in my gut; that feeling when you just know. In my dressing room. First message: “Huey honey, we were watchin’ you on the huge TV screen and Max was sweatin’, a fairly natural reaction all 
You wanna talk straight outta Compton? I get pulled over, one of those pig cocksuckers gets one look at me?  Bang, Bang. 
things considered, but then he really started sweatin’, like it was pourin’ off of him, like he was a fuckin’ fountain or somethin’. We’re taking him to the hospital—Gene and David and Zoey and me.” Beep. The hospital, I think to myself. What the fuck? What hospital, for fuck’s sake? I’m not even gonna change. I just stuff my pedestrian clothes in my Valentino bag. Message Two: “Cedars, by the way. You are probably still on stage. We got him here and they’ve attached him to all kinds of machines and shit. He keeps saying your name, over and over. One of the fuckin’ doctors keeps asking why he’s saying, ‘You me, you me. ‘It’s his lover, for Chrissake. His name is Huey. He wants him; Huey; he wants his lover.’  ‘Are they married?’ the doctor asks.” Beep. I am speeding through traffic, drenched in sweat. Hold the tears. Message Three: “He’s in a room but they won’t let anyone in. I don’t wanna freak you out but it’s an emergency situation and only a spouse can get anywhere near him at this point.”  Beep. Why the fuck didn’t we get married? They will let me in. I’ll rip that motherfucking doctor to shreds. Why the fuck is this happening? What is happening? Tears. North on La Brea, feels like about ninety miles an hour. Niggers have been killed for less than wearin’ shit like these. You wanna talk straight outta Compton? I get pulled over, one of those pig cocksuckers gets one look at me?  Bang, Bang. Message Four: “We are close enough proximity that we can still hear him screaming your name, over and over and over. ‘Huey, Huey, Hueeeeeeey. I know you’re goin’ nuts if you’re listenin’ to these messages but can you let us know you’re on your way?’ Beep. I don’t remember tears bein’ this hot in my mouth. Or is it sweat? The mixture?  Of tears and sweat? My eyes are blurry, so blurry; you can never see where to park at these fuckin’ hospitals—even when you’re not cryin’. I’m just gonna pull up, park, and find him. Message Five: “Huey, he’s in a room near the ER. Honey, we love you so much.” Beep. We love you so much? The parking attendant was running after me. Probably thought I was a mass murderer. “We love you so much.” I knew. 

* * *

My dad finally calmed down long enough for me to tell him. He face began an almost eerie transformation from one of those theatrical masks—comedy, tragedy—into the other. Suddenly, silence. He’d run out of words. By the time it was my turn to speak, in-the-moment, it was not a time to censor myself. So I told him; I told my Pops how I stormed into the hospital room, still in thug drag, into the hospital room where Max had just died, just died, minutes before I got there. I got into the bed with him. His body was still warm or maybe he just felt warm against the sweat soaked up by my body. As I spoke, I gauged every response from my father—he didn’t flinch. I swear I saw tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, son, that this is the first time you have been so open with me; the first time you’ve 

Huey Newton

been able to say these things I needed to hear.” I had obviously made assumptions about my dad: straight black man, guilty-as-charged with homophobia. I was hiding from him. Hiding from my dad by “charging him with crimes” that were not true. No more. No more hiding. I told him that I stayed in the bed with Max until he—his body—started to get cold. The body that I knew how to heat up. And apparently still did since his body—ravishing in its imperfection—was refusing to turn cold. They have no idea why he had a stroke. There do seem to be a number of men with HIV in their late fifties, early sixties, who are moving through life—almost as if we could believe, for a moment, that he wasn’t carrying that vicious virus. And no one knows about these strokes and sudden heart attacks. It’s a theory, mostly a street theory. Max finally began to chill. Then my dad answered the question that I’ve been asking for thirty years. Well, almost. On the hundred or so occasions I asked my mother, she always said—with the same tone of anger and resentment—“Ask you father.” Finally, I did ask my father, looking him in the eye, “Why was I named after Huey Newton?” It was “the other woman,” my dad sheepishly admitted. How the fuck did the other woman have anything to do with me being named after 
Finally, I did ask my father, looking him in the eye, “Why was I named after Huey Newton?” 
Newton? Turns out that she introduced my dad to the Black Panthers by taking him to a rally where Huey Newton was speaking on women’s rights. (Did anyone mention that the girlfriend was betraying her own gender by fucking with my dad while he was still married? Oh, the imperfections.) So the surprise in store was that Newton also had gay rights on his agenda. Way fuckin’ ahead of his time. The Black Panthers identified “the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups.” This was a very big deal and one that is rarely addressed today, a half a century later. Newton said that it didn’t matter what your fears were predicated on (and this my father proclaimed from memory): “We should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.” What better way than to name your kid Huey? My mother went along with it, happy to be painted cool and a bit militant. More irony is that I was named after Huey Newton but did not, until these many years later, realize I needed to hear his message, his fifty year old message: “We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people.” That’s why my dad was so mellow about Max—from the beginning. And I misinterpreted that quiet respect and those unspoken feelings as being shut down. In his own way, my dad was uniting with his son in a revolutionary fashion. Certainly revolutionary, all things considered. Now I need to catch up with him and join the revolution.

 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

THE N-WORD


Nigger. Yep, the n-word. Nigger.

There, I said it. Simply because you’re reading it (and not hearing the nuanced intonation) the word’s power is drained. Tone is everything. You have no ideas if I am saying it with venom, with matter-of-factness, or with a certain flirty friendliness.

But even seeing the word is stinging. And stinking.

You might say that I, as a white man, have no business using the word even if there is absolutely no malice intended. For a white man to utter those two syllables conjure centuries of horror; it is not possible for a white man to say “nigger” without assuming some degree of hatefulness. It is a mortal sin.
 
Katherine Kearns with her Dad
“Don’t say it,” my daughter pleads. “You’re my dad. Please don’t.” She is crying, tears that are springing from a bottomless well; tears that are as wet as the tears of Trayvon’s mommy; tears that are as fresh as the tears of Michael Jordan’s daddy; tears that splash on the streets of Ferguson and every other street in America.

I will be appearing at the Silver Lake Library in Los Angeles, mixing a Discussion that intends to capture the zeitgeist of the moment with a Performance that intends to pull the audience into a world that is foreign and yet ineluctably universal.

“Don’t, dad,” she says, with a determination that she’s been encouraged to cultivate.

She is my child. I am so proud of who she’s becoming: her intellect, her commitment, her politics.

“Honey, it’s an artistic choice. I’m not doing it to hurt you. Or hurt anyone. She’s a character, a construct. It’s a word that I believe—with all my heart—she’d use under these circumstances. And she’s using it affectionately.”

She is even more outraged that I dare to play a black woman who says “nigger” as a distorted term of endearment. “That doesn’t make it okay,” she says.

The subtitle of the event (“Michael Kearns: White On Black”) is “How Parenting a Black Daughter Has Taught Me Lessons About Race.” Little did I realize I’d be learning lessons less than forty-eight hours before the scheduled time of the afternoon gathering.

“I live in fear of being called that,” she says, sniffling. “I haven’t been—not yet—but when I’m walking down the street, I’m afraid someone is going to yell it from their car window. Or come up behind me and say it. It’s a horrible, horrible word.” Providing that startling context unnerves me.

Although it’s tempting, I don’t bring up the “faggot” comparison because she knows it wouldn’t bother me; not in the primal, imprinted way that the n-word would land on her.

We keep at it. I bring up Lily Tomlin and Anna Deavere Smith, both of whom have played men, men who are racially different. She listens, she does.

I listen, I do.

“I feel like you’ve made up your mind,” she says.
 
Anna Deavere Smith
I have. Somewhere along the line, a writer makes certain choices that could be construed as moral. I write characters (many of whom I play) who are society’s throwaways. Their language—so “foreign” to the ear that it is difficult to understand—bursts from an alternative dictionary of language that is littered with words that may be unsavory but not, sorry, unspeakable: words that are part onomatopoeia stirred in with some deliberate malapropisms.The same word could be hurled like a bullet at the end of Cupid’s bow.
 
“It is my job to be authentic,” I say. “I contract with the characters I play and it is my job to bring them to emotional life; I engage in an agreement that promises to adopt their way of speaking. If I believe a character is going to lovingly refer to her boyfriend as a ‘nigger’—when no other word will do—I have no option other than to put that word into her mouth.”
 
“But you’re going to say it—in front of people I know—and you’re my dad.”
“Do you think anyone who sees my work thinks that I’m a racist?”
Her silence indicates that she does not.
As the hours go by, I substitute other words; they fall flat. Is this my white privileged self justifying the pain I see on my baby’s face. Perhaps—in a very rare instance—I am putting my work before my kid’s feelings?
In the late-Eighties, prior to being tested—“to be or not to be,” that was the question—my work had, almost overnight, accelerated into an artistic stratosphere that was as exciting as it was terrifying.
I saw a photo in People Magazine, one of many depictions of HIV/AIDS at the time of the publication, more than a quarter of a century ago: An emaciated black woman, sitting in a bathtub, one arm uplifted as the other one lathered up her underarm. Her head of dreadlocks is thrown back, accentuating the huge smile on her face. It is that smile that would haunt me; it contained an ebullience that screamed “I’m alive” but her countenance was also carrying rage, sadness, and confusion. In the accompanying article, my lady in the tub was formerly a lady of the night, a veritable moving target, daring the virus to do its dirty work.
Big Red
This is the writer’s task: to climb into your subject’s body—naked body, in this case—and while in residence, perform a magic act of empathy that conjoins two spirits. This leap into otherworldliness requires workmanlike skills (demands of the voice and body) in tandem with muscularity of the heart (beware: breaks are inevitable).
“Big Red” was the manifestation of my initial connection to that photograph and the first black woman I would audaciously portray; she would become part of intimacies, but not before I did more exploration. I felt like I had to observe street hookers workin’ it, so I ventured into the bowels of Hollywood—on Sunset Boulveard, east of Western—where the action was during that time. I observed these women up close: pursing their love-for-sale lips, flipping their exaggerated hair, examining their reflection in the storefront windows that stared back with blurred facsimiles. In acting lexicon, these are often referred to as “emblematic gestures.” I memorized them and later, when I got home, I performed them—purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine, again: purse, flip, examine—over and over and over again.
I did not interview anyone but I got what I needed. More than any other time in my career, I felt like I was doing field work, becoming an anthropologist in a quest to deepen my writing and acting skills.
intimacies evolved into a solo performance piece in which I uncloak a number of characters who are ostensibly not within my grasp—as an actor or a human being. "To be an actor in the theater is to teach yourself and keep yourself disciplined and honorable,” Frank Langella said. “If you do that, you get a chance to fly in this kind of emotional paradise…Acting is just as much hard work as digging a ditch. And if you do all the yeoman work, inspiration will come." I did the work and the work put me on the map, in America and abroad.                                                                                                                            
The performance itself, I explain to my twenty-one year old, must be stageworthy (entertaining and believable with something to say) without ever forgetting my partnership with the audience. It may be a “solo” show but there are those who witness; they witness the transformative act of empathy, a visual metaphor.
Inhabiting the character authentically becomes a way to invite the audience to go on the ride with me. If a white man, over six feet tall, with a head of brown, straightish hair and often sporting a bushy moustache, can “become” Big Red—in all her transcendence—so can you, the audience member (no matter what your physicality or emotionality dictates). Empathy is the artery that leads you to a profound understanding.
Along with many other things—including parenting my daughter (which trumps everything else)—empathizing with The Other, on stage and on the page, has become my life’s work.
 

 
 


Saturday, January 9, 2016

THE NEW JIM CROW/THE NEW ME


During most of his presidency (1981—1989), Ronald Reagan avoided using the word “AIDS” until nearly 60,000 cases had been reported and more than 27,000 of those men and women had died.

The word he did employ, more times than anyone could possibly count, was “crack” as in “crack baby,” “crack house,” “crack mother,” and “crack whore.” Instead of a war on AIDS, Reagan had declared a war on drugs in 1982 when drug use was declining, not rising.




To read Michelle Anderson’s seething book, The New Jim Crow, is to awaken to a reality in American politics that virtually proves (with meticulous data and overwhelming statistics) that mass incarceration in America is testament to that the virulent disregard that we, white people, have for black and brown people.

The New Jim Crow is a call to arms.

In order to respond to Anderson’s detailed account—as emotionally rendered as it is intellectually generated—I look for myself in the book’s pages (as I do with most books), trying to insert myself so that, whether I like it or not, I am part of the action.

The pain that I feel, combined with anger and embarrassment, must be channeled into action.

Halfway through the book, I am overwrought with so many thoughts that I must begin organizing them. The connections create sparks, lightening bolts of empathy, fear, regret; the illumination is blinding.

There are times when I don’t want to believe Anderson’s words, often hurled off the page, seemingly in my direction. But I cannot duck; I let the words stick.

I do not question the conclusions that are masterfully drawn in The New Jim Crow: Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike) have (consciously or not) allowed (and in some cases, engineered) an environment in which black people—because of a perverse, immoral legal system—are afforded no more dignity than slaves were at the start of the Seventeenth century.

(Please don’t stop reading.)

"The pain that I feel...
must be channeled into action." 

Anderson’s reasoning is not based on conjecture; she relies on facts when she says (in the Introduction to her book):  “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.”

Because her canvass is so massive, Anderson could not go down every road. But I, as a reader, am able to fill in blanks that personalize the book’s intent. In fact, isn’t that our job as conscious readers?

In the early Nineties, when I began to seriously pursue becoming a parent, I knew that—as a single, gay, HIV-positive man—my options were limited. While I explored the possibilities—everything from being the weekend “father figure” in a lesbian relationship to being “Dad” to a foster child from the county of Los Angeles.

"...as a single, gay, HIV-positive man--
my options were limited."

After several fostering stints of varying durations (two brothers for four months), I came to the conclusion that I wanted a baby of my own; I wanted to be the parent of a child from as early as possible so that our bond would be as unalloyed as possible.

There is an unwritten and unspoken transaction that often transpired (or did during the particular period of time) whereby situations arose that were “foster-to-adopt”—in other words, a high likelihood that if you fostered one of these babies in limbo (most of whom had no apparent familial ties) you would logically (a word not usually associated with adoption in any of its myriad tangled manifestations) become the adoptive parent.

However, this proposition did not come without risks, risks that The System knew gays and lesbians were willing to take. Keep in mind that we were not perceived as the most

desirable candidates for parenting (still aren’t by many factions, including the Vatican); single men (no matter how they identified themselves sexually)—presumed to be pederasts—were were at the lowest echelon. In my case, if you included HIV status on my parenting resume, I would be considered somewhere after Joan Crawford. So I lied.

 
When the implied foster-to-adopt, rather than straightforward foster care, became the quest, each potential mama and papa was put through an exhaustive training, designed to weed out the lightweights.

Even though I had no specific mandate in terms of my future child’s gender, ethnicity, or potential disabilities, I do remember being told repeatedly that one must be prepared—especially if you took on the parenting of a black baby—for the probability that you’d be dealing with a “crack baby.”

And what exactly did that mean? At every level—from medical authorities to legal pundits to adoption experts—a “crack baby” would likely be physically challenged on many levels, unable to bond (even make eye contact) and unteachable. One maven told me that the child would forever mimic the affect of the mother in her addicted state.

In The New Jim Crow, Anderson explains: “A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.”

In January of 1995, I became the foster-to-adopt parent of the most beautiful little creature on the planet.

She was a “crack baby.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Celebrate With Caution


Celebration Theatre, during its halcyon days, was located on Hoover Street in Silver Lake, not in the land of hipsters that you are likely familiar with today but the seedier terrain of Silver Lake, home to Latinos, immigrants, and queers—oh, my—and oh, my, some Latino immigrant queers.

The theatre, about the size a small studio apartment, was actually an extension of the bus stop where passengers embarked on a trip to more glamorous Westside hotspots. We, its denizens, knew this because several times during critical board meetings, intense rehearsals, and performances that captured the collective grief of the AIDS cataclysm of the Eighties, bus riders would unwittingly arrive through a door—which the Fire Department prohibited us from locking—that stood between the bus stop bench and stage right.

“Where’s the john?” someone might ask as just an onstage character drew his final breath. “Does anybody have any change?” “When the fuck is the motherfucking bus supposed to get here, anyway?” Based on an 8 PM curtain, directors were warned in advance to create a bit of silent business as the bus screeched to a stop in front of the Celebration Theatre.

But believe me when I say that there is much to celebrate about that tiny sacred space on Hoover. Celebration Theatre had overflowing capacity to speak to a tribe of GLBT and, yes, questioning people who were finding their identity, inventing themselves and reinventing themselves during a period of mourning that we thought would never end. For many of us, it hasn’t.
 "...captured the sacred and profane marriage of sex and death, not uncommon in a plague state."
Chuck Rowland was the founder and first Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre; to preserve his name on this award is not only symbolic, it is historically correct. As Chuck grew older and frailer, he knew he’d have to let go of the baby he delivered on Hoover Street. Being chosen as his successor was one of those moments in my life that pointed to a new artistic frontier; Chuck unwittingly provided me with the physical space to introduce a form of explicit visceral expressiveness—an entwined emotional/sexual space, if you will—that was heretofore foreign to his generation.

While HIV/AIDS was tiptoeing into the consciousness of gay theatre artists, it was—as oxymoronic as it may sound—PC HIV. Chuck had undoubtedly never read a play with stage directions indicating that “the two onstage actors cum simultaneously.”).

“Pornography,” Chuck grumbled, describing Jerker, Robert Chesley’s 1986 so-called “AIDS play” that trenchantly captured the sacred and profane marriage of sex and death, not uncommon in a plague sate.

As theatrically savvy as anyone, Chuck eventually embraced the play in all its juiciness: multiple orgasms, blood pumping fantasies, and finally, the tears shed as audience members remained in their seats for some time after the final curtain fell.

The opportunity to direct Chesley’s play was the ideal artistic follow up for me after I acted in James Carroll Pickett’s Dream Man. Pickett, like Chesley, was unapologetic about profound explorations of sexuality in his work. For him, the sexual gay male body was a conduit to deep truths. Chesley and Pickett entrusted me with the daunting task of telling their stories. Stories with words that zing, words that linger, words that hurt, words that scream, words that shock, words that defined—with equal amounts of rawness and elegance—what we (gay men) were experiencing.

Kearns & Pickett, producers of STAGE,
the first and longest-running AIDS 
benefit in the country. 

I became a playwright because of Robert Chesley and James Carroll Pickett; this is their award as much as it is mine. My angel brother mentors both died of the plague but both remain seated on each side of me as I delve into the next play, the next monologue. Along with the innumerable other illegal things I did, I married each of those two men, my artist-husbands—no greater loves, no greater intimacies.

Chesley died in 1990. We held a memorial at the Hoover Street Theatre. Pickett and only one of the two surviving actors—revealingly emaciated—were among the atendees. Pickett died on July 4, 1994.
 "...I married each of these two men, my artist-husbands..."
I may have been rendered husbandless but I would not be childless. Katherine Kearns was born on August 26, 1994. My decision to adopt as a single gay man who was HIV-positive—prior to the release of the miracle protease inhibitors—resulted in reviews crueler than any given to my stage work. Many of my erstwhile supporters felt that if I survived, being a dad would certainly soften me, desexualize and depoliticize me. Ha!

Katherine, especially during the past decade—and most pointedly in the last year—has only served to expand my consciousness far beyond the concerns of being a gay man who lived through the prism of white privilege. My daughter has, in many respects, radicalized me.

The rage she experiences is fresh rage; the pain I see in her eyes is not eradicated like a “boo boo” that goes away with a smooch and a band aid. From the Ferguson furor to the gross negligence inflicted upon Sandra Bland, I am immersed in a day-to-day crash course in Black Studies. “Have you heard about the Stonewall film?” she asks, referring to the whitewashing of a queer civil rights milestone.
"...a gay man who lived through the prism of white privilege." 
The fact that we don’t share the same blood is a non-issue; the difference of our skin color is the more pervasive challenge that stirs the fresh cement of our evolving father-daughter bond. In spite of the daily turbulence that we confront in the world, a fundamental stability defines the core of our family.

Her black life matters to me more than my own white life. And I trust that her influence on me will continue to present itself in real life as well as on the page and on the stage.

Yes, we—the queers—have made inconceivable strides. But as we plan our nuptials, let us remember that there are queers of color who are routinely targeted and often murdered in cold blood; there are queers who must fight with all their muscle for Planned Parenthood, there are queer women of color who are more likely to be raped than their white counterparts; there are queers—disproportionately queers of color—who are immorally and inhumanely incarcerated; there are queers who deserve gender reassignment surgery under any circumstances—whether in the military or behind bars; there are queers—disproportionately queers of color—on Skid Row, on Death Row and at the border; there are queer men, disproportionately queers of color, who do not have access to Truvada; there are queers who are victims of this country’s lurid obsession with war. We are everywhere; not just at the wedding planners’.

Pickett (headband and whistle) with Tim Miller acting up.

And this is merely a smattering of issues that are largely American in scope; if we go global in our artistic expansiveness, there are more injustices to examine, and for playwrights—like myself (and many of you)—to explore and illuminate.

Thanks to Celebration Theatre Artistic Directors Michael Shepperd and Michael Matthews for this honor. Thanks to Mark Bringelson and his team of fearless actors who gave us so much.

And, finally, I thank each and every one of you for attending tonight and listening to my words as I endeavor to speak your particular language.

T
his speech was in acceptance of the Chuck Rowland Pioneer Award "for groundbreaking and distinguished achievement in the LGBTQ playwrighting and arts advocacy." Presented to Michael Kearns by Celebration Theatre on August 11, 2015 at the West Hollywood City Council Chambers. 


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I Love You, Malcolm

I LOVE YOU, MALCOLM

The situation was redolent of déjà vu: bidding adieu to a dying comrade whose life of heralded human accomplishments had been reduced to the figure of a body prone under off-white hospital sheets with his labored breathing accompanied by the sibilant symphony of wheezing machines, determinedly keeping him alive.

“He can hear you,” the nurse assured me, echoing the words of Mark, his lover of more than thirty years. That imposed a certain responsibility on my part; what I said would potentially be ingested, possibly traveling from his ear to some region of his body that could be soothed by mere words. Not texts, mind you, or a gushy Facebook entry, but real words that would land in his physical orbit.

“I love you,” I said. There must be something else to say, something less predictable, a less hackneyed choice of words to impart to a man who wrote dozens of luminous books, delivered thousands of profound sermons, told a million or so juicy Hollywood stories.

“I love you,” I repeated. “I love you. I love you.”

His eyelids fluttered, like a silent movie star’s, like those of Mary Pickford, the astronomical silent screen great, with whom he shared an intense business and personal relationship more than a half a century ago.

“I love you. I love you,” I repeated. There were simply no other words that came forth. And yet, in uttering those three words, over and over and over, Malcolm seemed to be the one who was giving as much as he was receiving.

"..shared an aura of indomitability that radiated from their essence; their shared larger-than-life personas made us believe that they were too big to die, too luminous, too outrageous, too present."

Sitting with him, I tried to enumerate the deaths that piled up this year alone: Tommy, a part of my life for more than twenty years, including a make out session that lingers on my lips; Audrey, the grande dame mother of one of my closest friends; Michael, a costume designer who I once witnessed creating a dress on a male performer who stood patiently in a black sea of tulle; Taylor, the actor-writer-painter who combined artistry and humanity with every breath he took.

All of these people, including my darling friend-comrade Malcolm Boyd, shared an aura of indomitability that radiated from their essence; their shared larger-than-life personas made us believe that they were too big to die, too luminous, too outrageous, too present.

“I love you, Malcolm.” I held his hand even though it was snugly situated under the hospital blanket with its embossed pattern of…what is it, flowers? His hand seemed large and strong, contrasting with the frail diminutiveness of his body.

Do I tell him how monumentally he has affected my life? Do I announce how he has consistently inspired me for decades? Do I remind him of all the giggles amidst the shifting phases of our friendship?

“I love you. I love you. I love you.”

He appeared to be in a state of contentment; no raging at the night or waging a war against time. At ninety-one, with a beloved husband (Mark Thompson), a rolodex of friends who are true-blue and more than a little bit lavender, and a literary legacy unparalleled, activist/man-of-the-cloth Malcolm Boyd seems to be welcoming whatever is next. That seems to be his nature.

“Goodbye, my dear friend.

“I love you.” 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Guess Who's Coming...

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO THANKSGIVING DINNER?



I am not black.

I was a seventeen-year old, attending Normandy High School in St. Louis, Missouri, when I saw Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. A groundbreaking film—yet still with its roots firmly planted in Hollywood—the Oscar winning movie dared to examine race relations as America at large was barely finding its footing.

I remember seeing the film with my Grandma Katie, the one relative I could trust throughout otherwise duplicitous familial machinations. During the late Sixties, she rented a room from a woman who lived in Ferguson, Missouri. I have no recollection of discussing the film although my grandmother took me to see Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with specific intent.

I am not black.

I had met very few black people when I went to a virtually all-white high school; it was only when I ventured into gay bars in East St. Louis that I was exposed to gay black men. They were—to throw out the first of many politically incorrect words I will inevitably employ—exotic.

I knew I was gay in high school and so did almost everyone else including a gang of bullies who—in a militaristic maneuver between classes—captured me, threw me into one of the gymnasium showers and kicked me as I was drenched with cold water. The event would eventually fuel the fires of my activism.

The year I graduated from high school, poised to escape the fear and homophobia I experienced, was a year of mythic political activity: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Chicago riots at the National Democratic Convention, and the student protests over the war in Vietnam

I began to grasp the concept of Us Versus Them.


Ferguson, Missouri

On Thanksgiving, still reeling from the Ferguson debacle, my adopted black daughter and I go to dinner with a few of our “family” members (Carol and Art, who play the “grandparent” roles and “Uncle” Bill). Of the five of us, my daughter is the only one who is black.

I am not black.

About a year ago, Katherine called me from England, where she was at college, studying filmmaking. “You know something, Dad?” she asked rhetorically and straightforwardly. Then answered herself, “I’m black.”

It was a moment I’d been waiting for; in spite of all the Martin Luther King parades and politically correct children’s books; in spite of trips to Leimert Park and God-only-knows how many African-American-centric beauty salons; after how many movie showings (including Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner) and how many friends I attempted to cultivate, one truth remains: Katherine was brought up by a bunch of crackers.

And even though she’s only twenty years old, the color of her skin is saturated with the hues of more than two-hundred years of anti-black sentiment.

I am not black.

“But I know what discrimination is like. I’ve lost work—I’ve virtually been blacklisted in Hollywood [is "blacklisted" a politically incorrect word?]. I’ve been made fun of. I’ve been afraid for my life,” I insist, trying to suggest that my degree of empathy is pristine.

Katherine insists back, “Dad, it is not the same. It’s just not.” I take a lame stab at the marriage issues (even I know that’s not comparable—I don’t know of any gay lynching in West Hollywood).

I am not black.

Katherine gives me a few articles to read which happens concurrently with a Poly Sci class I’m taking that explores race in America, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the murder in Ferguson. While race is an issue that has been in the foreground of my work as a writer and an actor for decades, I suddenly felt like A Big Ignorant Honkie.


Katherine and her friend (to this day) Cassady 

Before we sit down to eat on Thanksgiving, Katherine flippantly says, “Well, I guess I should be thankful I wasn't shot by Darren Wilson.” Action; the camera is rolling—metaphorically. Wilson is the cop who shot Michael Brown—the teen who recently graduated from Normandy High School (which had become primarily a black school since my days as a student there)—not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times.

Carol suggests that she knows what discrimination is like because she was taunted as a child for being unusually tall, having a childhood illness, and not fitting into normative boxes.

“Carol,” Katherine says, trying to reason. “You have to stop saying that. It’s not the same. It’s not the same as living in black skin. You cannot make those comparisons. I could get killed for being black—do you get that?”

I am not black.

The discussion escalated. I tried to keep my big mouth shut but did offer that I, too, felt like the perils of my marginalization as a gay person are comparable to those of a black person—until I really, really listened to Katherine.

“Carol, it hurts my feelings when you say things like that,” Katherine says, walking from the living room, out the front door.

Katherine begins to cry. Carol begins to understand. We can’t be the only family in America exploring Ferguson during a family gathering on Thanksgiving.


High School Graduation with Carol & Art

Carol loves no one on the face of the Earth more than she loves Katherine. She and Art have helped raise her—from changing diapers to navigating these changing times.

Uncle Bill, a therapist, has always watched with intimacy and objectivity.“It’s so good that you are able to say these things,” he assures Katherine on the evening of our family holiday dinner. 

Carol’s perception shifts.

As a new scene unfolds, I lie down in the adjacent bedroom within earshot of Katherine and Carol enjoying a conversation. Katherine explains how her racial identity is directly affecting her artistic life. She is determined to address what she correctly perceives to be a skewed vision of race in the television and film industry.

Now it’s my turn to cry, quietly, tears of thanksgiving for my daughter (who changed her name in honor of my grandmother) and our evolving mixed family.

I am not black.