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.

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


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.”