Artist Interview with Robert O'Hara
Tim Sanford: I often start my interviews with writers with some background questions of how they became a writer. But in your case, as you revealed in your article for our Bulletin, that will overlap some with the background for Bootycandy. Did you grow up in a family where you were exposed to performance or theater?
Robert O’Hara: Um. No. Well I was exposed to it by my family, without their knowledge.
You mean there were no tickets sold.
Exactly, there were no tickets. I mean, if your grandmother has twelve kids and your mother is the oldest daughter, and you have uncles and aunts who are basically teenagers when you’re growing up, then there’s quite a lot of information. Everything is just on. So I had theater in my life, I would put on shows in the backyard, and I had a bunch of cousins, and we were always making up songs and singing and dancing and generally “performing.” My grandmother called me the “Ringleader.” In the sixth grade I wrote a play, an adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, called Ebony and the Seven Cool Cats. I showed it to my sixth grade teacher, saying, “I want to submit this for the sixth grade play.” I thought she would say, “Give me a break,” but we did it. And I had this instinct that instead of having the evil witch say “Mirror, Mirror on the wall,” there was a Diana Ross song called “Mirror Mirror,” and I had them play that. Looking back, that was like the height of gaydom. Diana Ross. It was a gay anthem, really. I was in the sixth grade. And I directed the piece, too, with the help of my teacher, so that was sort of crazy.
In your Bulletin article you talk a little bit about being singled out as “gifted and gabby.” (Laughter)
Yes! Apparently there’s a tenor to my voice. Whenever a teacher would come into the room, literally a room full of kids talking at the top of their lungs, the teacher would say, “Robert shut up.” And I’d be like, “Everyone in this room is talking!” My teacher would always say to my mother, “Yes, he’s really wonderful, he’s really smart, but he talks too much.” I guess it was sort of a defense reflex, because I was so small and skinny, I couldn’t really fight my way out of things. Also I cursed very early. My grandparents cursed each other out on a regular basis.
Were you living at your grandmother’s when you were growing up?
Because my mother was 17 when she had me, she would go to work and I would stay with my grandmother during the week. And there was an elementary school right next door that I went to for the first two or three years, and then in the third grade my mother put me in a Catholic school near the apartment I lived in with my mom. Then when I was 12, she married my stepfather.
You have talked about being one of only a few black kids in your school, is that right?
In Catholic school, yes. It was an integrated school but because I was put into advanced classes, I was often one of only a few black students, or even the only one sometimes.
Did you feel like an outsider?
I did, not only because of that, but also because there was no value placed on education in my family. My mother just assumed I was smart, and I had glasses so I was called “four eyes,” and I was always reading a book, and so the outsider feeling came from the fact that I really loved school. I remember crying on the weekends, and my granny or my mom would say, “Why are you crying?” And I would say, “I want to go to school.” And she’d say, “Are you kidding me?! You’re crying because you have a day off from school?” But I would literally cry. It was just, you know, I felt different. I looked different. I would daydream constantly, and talk to myself constantly. For the first six years of my life I was an only child and I had this huge family, but lived with my mom. Then she had my little brother and he was a crazy person. We had nothing in common. So I still had no one to talk to. He could sit with a matchbox car for three hours: one car, going back and forth, and I’d be like, “That’s crazy.”
Is that the inspiration for “Happy Meal”?
Right! I just changed it into a sister there. That was dinner in our family. I would have a book in my hand, my stepfather would have the race charts out, my brother would have matchbox car or He-man thingy, and my mother would be talking about something I don’t even remember. Just whatever. And we would all sit and have dinner alone together, and then someone would say something and the most crazy conversation would come out. So yes, that’s where “Happy Meal” comes from.
So eventually you went to Tufts, right?
I went to Tufts, yes.
Someone must have encouraged you to apply there. Are you from there?
No, I’m from Cincinnati.
So what led you to New England?
The need to get out of Cincinnati. I always said, if you can look across water and see the South, then you’re in the South. But Cincinnati seems to think they’re in the North. But you can see Kentucky. So I always felt that I needed to get further away from Cincinnati and the craziness there, and fully reinvent myself and be who I wanted to be. I remember telling my guidance counselor, “I just want to go to either coast, and I want it to be very hard for my parents to get there without my knowledge.” (Laughter) So I realized that I wasn’t ready to go the west coast, and I wasn’t really ready to go to New York, though I knew I wanted to be there eventually. So I read up on other options and decided to apply to Tufts.
And when you went to Tufts as a freshman, what were your main interests?
I went to Tufts to be a lawyer, to study political science. I had always done theater; I did all the musicals in high school; I was voted the best dancer in high school; I choreographed and did plays and theater things, but that was always a hobby. I also thought I was going to be married with two kids named Oliver and Olivia. So that didn’t work out either. Then one day I was like, “Wait a minute. I think I only want to be a lawyer because of ‘L.A. Law.’ I loved that show. Do you remember it?”
Jimmy Smits! And what’s that other guy? Blair Underwood?
I remember in a political science class, my sophomore year, we were given Frankenstein to read. And I was like, “Why the hell do I have to read Frankenstein?” I started reading it, and thought, “Why the hell am I taking political science; I just want to read this book.” And I decided, I’m not going to read all those political books, I’m just going to read this book. So I’ll go into literature and I’ll do English. So I transferred and they were like, “Here’s fifty books you have to read by tomorrow.” And I thought, “I’m not going to read all those books. I’ll just do drama, since I’ve already read the plays and I’m doing auditions and stuff.” And my mother was like, “What are you going to do with drama?” And I was like, “I think I’m going to be a director.” And she’s like, “Well, how many black directors do you know?” And I was like, “I don’t know any black directors. I don’t know any black lawyers either.” And she said, “I only know Spike Lee.” And I thought, “Well, maybe there will be another one.”
You said you wanted kids named Oliver and Olivia.
Yes, because my last name is O’Hara. So the Os go together.
And this stopped when you stopped wanting to be a lawyer. Did you stop wanting to be a lawyer when you came out? Stopped imagining yourself in a straight life?
Exactly. I came out to myself—and everyone at Tufts—at the end of my sophomore year, and that’s when I changed my major to drama. I came out to my parents right before graduation. Everyone knew me as this gay drama student activist guy. I did The Normal Heart as my final play at Tufts, and the day we opened, Magic Johnson said he had HIV. So I knew my parents were coming up. And I knew that if I just told my mother, it would turn into this vortex of, “What did you do?” like the mother in “Happy Meal.” So I decided, in order for her to hear exactly what I had to say, I had to write it. And because I was a writer, I wrote it. And I wrote this two-and-a-half-page letter about it, saying, “You have a journey to deal with; I’m sorry I can’t help you deal with it but this is who I am.” And I also wrote like five sentences to my biological father, who I did not grow up with. And I mailed everything off. Then I got a call from my mother, and I remember I came home to my dorm with a friend, and I pushed the answering machine button and it was my mother’s voice, and I stopped it and I told my friend, “You have to listen to it and tell me if I should listen.” And he came back out and said, “It’s absolutely fine.” And the one thing she said was, “Does this mean you’re going to wear a dress?” And I was like, “What? Where does that come from?” And she also said, “I’m just worried about you and your safety,” because of the fear HIV presented to society. So that was my coming out. My parents were basically the last people to know. And then yet, probably the first. Because I never bounced a ball. Never caught a ball. Never talked about anything that had to do with a sport. Just danced, and sang, and was a writer. I mean, should I paint my room pink and get a tutu?
What was the relationship of your directing to your writing?
I was always writing. I would write dirty stories in high school, and give them to my friends, and they would all pass them around. And my grandmother would always go to flea markets, and I would get these little dime store novels, just awful nasty novels, then Stephen King, and Lawrence Sanders, and Jackie Collins, and I would emulate them. But I didn’t think of it as a profession. I didn’t think of myself as a writer; I just wrote.
Did you write plays that you did in college?
Did you direct them yourself?
Yes. And I started the Tufts Black Theater Company with my very good friend Heather Simms. It was an extracurricular group. We got a lot of African Americans from around campus who liked to act, but certainly weren’t going to be drama majors, and we did plays. We did The Colored Museum. And we did one of my first plays that had a Preacher talking about the “I heard folks,” just like Reverend Benson in Bootycandy. I think of that scene, “Dreaming in Church,” as an extension of that scene I wrote in college.
So when you finished, were you applying to grad schools as a writer and director?
That was your plan all along.
And you went to Columbia.
Yes, I came to Columbia my senior year and had my interview. And I applied for both playwriting and directing. I got here for my directing interview and they were like, “You know what? You’re one of our top candidates.” I go back to Tufts and I tell everyone, “Fuck this Spanish class. I’m not taking this here anymore; I’ll take it at Columbia. Bye-bye!” A week later, I got a rejection letter. And I was like, “Oh my God. I stopped going to Spanish class. I told everyone I was going to Columbia and New York to become a director.” And I remembered that my counselor in high school told me if I ever got rejected or wait listed somewhere, I should call them and tell them I’m really interested, in case there’s an open slot. So I called up Columbia, and I was like, “So, hi. When I visited there, you guys said I was one of your top candidates?” And they said, “Can you hold on a second Robert?” And ten minutes later the dean got on the phone and said, “We sent you the wrong letter, and I’m sorry. You got into the directing program. We haven’t decided yet about the playwriting program, but you certainly got into the directing program. And you’re gonna get your acceptance letter in a week, and then you will also know about the playwriting program.” To this day, I have nothing but a rejection letter from Columbia’s directing and playwriting program. I showed up. They sent me financial aid things over the summer, and I thought, “Ok, they really must have accepted me…” And then they gave me a master’s degree.
And were you writing plays?
No, I didn’t get into the playwriting program! I was directing.
Did you write anyway?
I wrote Insurrection: Holding History. And they told me, “We don’t allow directors to write their thesis pieces, so we’re going to give you a deadline to get your play done and we have to approve it.” Well, I was interning in George C. Wolfe’s office, and Oliver Mayer was doing his play there and I had one of my drafts of my play that I was planning to do as my thesis, and I said, “Could you read this?” And he did, and gave it to Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum, where he worked, and they asked me if I wanted to do a reading of Insurrection in their new play festival. So I went to the chair of my department and said, “Well you know, I have to go to L.A. now because they’re doing a reading of the play at the Mark Taper Forum.” And he was like, “What? Well, I guess we don’t have to read it, of course you can do it as your thesis.” And I knew then that all it took was dropping the right name, and everything would go okay. So they did Insurrection, and that was the first play of mine that they ever saw at Columbia. And the crazy thing is they give out a playwriting award, and I won the playwriting award having not done any of the playwriting classes. And the playwrights looked at me like I was crazy. “Who are you? You never told us you wrote!”
They didn’t look at you like you were crazy. They looked at you like you were a sneak.
Exactly. So that was fun.
So what did it take to get George to produce Insurrection?
You know, George came to see my thesis. And he thought it was fantastic, and eventually said to me, “I’m not going to let you direct it, and I’m not going to let you put these people in it. You’re coming down to the Public Theater, and this is a step up now, and you can’t expect to be able to do what you did in college and grad school.” So he was very clear. And then he gave me all of these notes, and I started to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And I told him, “I want to direct it, I want to direct it.” And the thing is, the reason I wrote it is because at the end of my graduate school, I felt that all my colleagues in the directing program were hoping that someone was going to hire them out of grad school to direct Shakespeare. They were thinking of this as the culmination of their directing careers, and I was thinking of it as the beginning of mine. I knew I was only going to get hired to do new plays, and I knew I was a writer, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. So that was a concerted effort. And also it was a concerted effort to get to the Public Theater. Here was an African-American gay man who wanted to direct and write. George directed and wrote. So I wrote him a letter and he brought me in. And it was crazy, and maddening, and amazing. And people would call me his protégé, and he would call me Grasshopper, and he’d call me Eve Harrington. Openly! So one day I was assisting George on Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, and I got a call from my agent and he said, “You have a meeting tomorrow.” “With who?” “With Martin Scorsese. They want you to write this new Richard Pryor movie.” And I turned to George and said, “Can I get out of rehearsal tomorrow,” and he’s like, “For what!” And I said, “I have a meeting with Martin Scorsese.” And he looked at me and said, “Sellout. Of course you can go.” And so I left. And that sort of sped it up. I think he realized it would be kind of ridiculous for someone else to do Insurrection when I was his assistant, his intern, he’d seen the show, and he knew me personally.
So how many plays were between Insurrection and Bootycandy?
I think four or five. I was doing plays down in the Lower East Side, the Kraine Theater, HERE, and Culture Project. I would do my plays around there, right after Insurrection. And I was a Usual Suspect at New York Theater Workshop.
And what were those plays?
I did a play called American Ma(ul) at Culture Project, and the first incarnation of Bootycandy was done at the Kraine with Partial Comfort. I did a play downtown called Brave Brood. Then there was another play that was passed off from Kia Corthron and Chay Yew, and a number of other playwrights; it was called Play. But I was also directing other people’s plays too, Chad Beckim and Sam Marks…
Were your directing opportunities moving faster than your writing opportunities or were they parallel?
They were pretty much parallel. I would say that most people thought that I was a screenwriter, which is odd, maybe because I lived in LA for like a year. Only the people in the know knew that I had written Insurrection. And I was making a living off of screenwriting, which afforded me the ability to do a play at the Kraine, and not have to get a real job.
When did your association with Woolly Mammoth start?
That started with In theContinuum. And that’s when they began to know me as a director.
So their interest in you was as a director first?
No. Howard [Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth], knew Insurrection. He said he didn’t think he had enough of the good black talent there in D.C. to do it, and he couldn’t bring everyone from out of town. But he always checked in with me about things. Then In the Continuum did a whole American tour, at all of these theaters that had either been interested in my work as a playwright or rejected my work as a playwright. And I started to have more conversations about what I was working on as a writer. Then Howard read Antebellum, and Woolly did it.
Didn’t we do a reading of Antebellum, before the production at Woolly?
Yes! Way before.
And was that the first reading you had with us?
Yes, that was the when the literary manager at Playwrights was Lisa Timmel.
So you said that Bootycandy first started as a collection of short plays at the Kraine?
Yes. They were written over ten years. It was a night of my collected plays. So Howard read it and thought some of it was quite compelling. He said, “You know, actually I’ve been talking with my literary manager, and we think that there’s something to the kid in the first play, and also the guy in ‘Drinks and Desire.’ What if you went back and investigated those people?” And I was like, “That makes no sense to me,” because literally they had no connection to each other in my mind, but I went back and looked closely at a few of them, and I began to see that of course it was my writing, and it was all me dealing with different things and people; how I dealt with the church and how I dealt with my mother and how I dealt with relationships.
So Howard was on to something when he suggested that.
And “Drinks and Desire”: didn’t you say it was written for something else?
Yes. There was this short erotic play festival at the sex club up the street, at Show World—
How come I didn’t get invited to that? (Laughter)
And it was just two characters, A and B.
Was that pretty much the same play?
Pretty much, except there was no real emotional value to it, because it was just two random men. The characters weren’t brothers-in-law.
But still there’s the payoff of the white guy rejecting him?
Well it wasn’t a white guy-it was just A and B, there’s no race in it.
So what seems intrinsic now, wasn’t part of it at all.
No. It was just two people in a bar, and then one of them figures out that they’re actually in love with the other person.
So the emotional rejection was still the climax.
Yes. Absolutely. And you know, what was interesting was that it was supposed to be a night of erotic writing, so most of the people did things in which there was some sort of sexual stimulation that was supposed to be happening. And here you had two men talking, and it wasn’t just a scene, it was like a playlet, you know. It was kind of an odd beast for them.
Right, well if it was an erotic play festival, yours must have been kind of a downer. Because it starts off very erotic and then…
It becomes very dark and emotional. And that’s just where the play sent me. And the play at the end of Bootycandy, “The Last Gay Play.” I was sitting across the street from the Russian Tea Room with Jason Butler Harner and this straight guy got up and said, “Hey! Your voice sounds crazy are you gay?” And we had an evening with him that resembled “The Last Gay Play.” And Jason and I still talk about it, and he’s like, “I can’t believe you wrote a play about that.” And that’s what would happen. I would have an experience, and I’d write a little play, and then it would sit around until someone would be like “Could you write a play about something something,” and I would go, “Well, my mother used to call my penis Bootycandy.” It would just come up.
Do you remember the reading we did of Bootycandy? How it was different?
Yes. Well first of all, Howard and the team from Woolly came up and we had a mixture of people who were in the play—I think Lance [Coadie Williams] and Phillip [James Brannon]. That was the first reading we did of it; I was still writing it. It wasn’t massaged yet into a form; it was just participles bumping up against each other.
So the scenes that you used were the first five scenes of Bootycandy right? Were they the first five scenes in the original evening?
No, they were all over the place. The first scene was always “Bootycandy,” and the second scene was “Genitalia.” But “Genitalia” was never supposed to be a scene, it was just four voices. It was commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville as a telephone play, and they rejected it. So then I put it in the Kraine. And one woman did it there! She would do four different voices and jump around.
So all the scenes were really just randomly put together?
Yes! “Mug” was written because one of my friends from NYU needed an audition piece, needed a monologue. So I wrote him this monologue about getting mugged.
So from “Mug” on, everything is new.
Everything is new. And the scenes before “Mug” were new too, because now there was a throughline, coming out of the imagination of Sutter. He provides the connective tissue. But I also wanted to rule out any sense of forcing it into a narrative. So the conference scene I wanted to use as an eraser to take everything the audience was trying to put together before then and just erase it, say, “It’s okay, these plays were not written together and that’s okay. But they were written by the same person and that is significant.”
Was the conference in the reading we did?
You know what, it had to be! Because that’s when I realized what it would be. I thought, “What if I stop trying to make these plays connect in a logical way, and tell the audience that there is no connection.” That’s why they’re all dressed the same, because they’re all extensions of Sutter. And that’s when I knew what the rest of the play was going to be.
Still, you do find ways to draw it all together. Characters reappear…
I began to carve it in. There is more Michael Jackson, there’s “You’ve lost your mind in real life.” So, I went back and laid in stuff into those earlier scenes.
But ironically after you wiped the slate clean, you start off the second act with probably the scene that most clearly links to the first scene.
Right! It is a sitcom into craziness. “Happy Meal” really is a sitcom that goes unapologetically off the rails.
That’s how you lay it out. You’re just boldly taking things from your life, and throwing them in there. Like, it’s a double-dare. (Laughter)
Exactly. I used to have a problem calling this autobiographical, but now, yeah, it’s based on a true story. It’s based in truth, and then it goes off the rails. My mother doesn’t cuss like that. You meet my mother, my mother is like the sweetest person on earth, except I know her as this woman who was over me for eighteen goddamn years. When she sees this play, she says, “I hope people don’t think that’s me.” And I say, “I don’t think people think that’s you, but if they do you don’t have to worry about it, because they’re thinking I’m crazier than you.”
“Happy Meal” also sets up “The Last Gay Play” because the thing that’s happened to Sutter ends up being important later.
Yes. And that’s always the case, isn’t it? The things that are shirked off end up having great significance.
In a way, you needed something to shut your mother up. (Laughter)
You know, I actually said that to my mother once. “A man followed me home.” And she said, “What were you doing?”
You said, “Some man followed me home?”
Yes! From the library. And I’m sure I was a little gay boy batting my eyes at him or whatever, I’m sure I wasn’t like, “Don’t come near me,” so he thought he could come over and give me some attention. But I wasn’t going to talk to this guy in this Vietnam jacket who looked like a crazy guy, but he was interested and he followed me. And I told my mother, probably four weeks later, and instantly my stepfather said, “You know, you need to take up some sports.” (Laughter) It was like the door had opened. Now we could talk about the fact that I’m not like other boys. I mean, nobody was following my little brother home! No one’s following Mom home! So why is a man following your teenage son home? Instead of dealing with, “I know you’re probably examining your sexuality now,” instead of dealing with that, it is, “Take up sports. Wrestle. Do whatever you can so we don’t actually have to say gay at this table.” I was doing musicals; I was singing songs; I was writing plays. Everything about it said HOMOSEXUAL. And everything about my family was like, “Oh…well, we’re going to look around all that for now.”
Before the play breaks down in “The Last Gay Play,” when Sutter talks about the motivation for getting revenge, it’s because the Clint character is white but also because he’s straight. The hate crimes he mentions—one is Matthew Shepard, and the other is the black man who was dragged behind a truck. They’re both kinds of hate crimes.
Right, they’re gay and they’re black. And the white guy who accuses him, in the breakdown who goes after him, is also the actor who will end up playing the guy who molests him. Right? So there’s like, the object of your affection turns on you. And that’s what I think that moment is about, and that’s why I gave it to that character. Because he just had to take off all his clothes, and do this crazy scene, but then he comes back out and says, “You can’t make people do that without consequences, okay? It has to cost you something to put that on a stage!” And I think that’s what Sutter is dealing with, and that’s why he shuts down.
And was that a two-state process for you, in the writing of it? Starting with the impulse to access the rage of the various transgressions against this kid, and then the realization that it goes too far?
Yes. The scene would normally just end with the character of Larry walking out of the bar and leaving Sutter alone with himself, and because it was also something I had been working on, it was like pieces, like music, it was a fragment. And the fragment I had been working on ended with Larry saying, “Don’t ever call me again. Truth or Dare: You’ve done this before.” Blackout, end of scene. That was the fragment I had been working on. But when I connected it to Bootycandy I was like, “Okay, that’s too much. Where am I going to go after this? There’s nowhere to go.” You have to come back and address it. It would be irresponsible otherwise. Because otherwise I would end the play and it would be some sort of freaky ending to the play. But I knew that he wanted to go back to some place, so I had to have him have to deal with what just happened in order to go where he needed to go.
So did you come up with Grandma after that? Did you know Grandma was the last scene?
I knew Grandma was the last scene, but I didn’t know how to get to her. I had to find a device to get to Grandma. There was a scene in there, and the scene was crazy and I knew that what I had just shown would take something out of the audience, because I had made them laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, and then we had gone to this darker place, and they even laughed in that place. So I wanted to acknowledge the weight of everything they had seen, you know.
We didn’t talk about “Ceremony,” which comes right after “Happy Meal.” It’s a super hilarious scene, but it’s based in this kind of outrageously revved up acrimony. It works on its own as a satire on the empty new agey gobbled-gook jargon of some contemporary weddings. But it also feeds into “The Last Gay Play” through its anger, in a way.
So much had been made of marriage equality and commitment ceremonies then five minutes later the folks who made such a year-long fuss over commitment were suddenly NON-committed and there was NO FUSS made what so ever made. In fact most times the people who were at the ceremony are the last ones to know. I recently invited a friend and his wife to dinner and his response was that his wife wasn’t coming because they were divorced and had not been living together for months. And I was like, “So I had to invite you out to dinner for you to tell me that your marriage of over a decade was over?” I always thought all my friends who I sent presents to and spend my time and money getting to their destination weddings, should have to pay everyone back once they became uncommitted and they should have to bring us back to the place that they made such a fuss about having their ceremony at and do a sort backtrack and tell us all the shit that happened to make them non-committed. So I KNEW that I would include such a scene in the play. I did not know it would be between two women or that it would be as vicious as it is, but I’m overjoyed that it actually speaks to the scenes before it and the scenes after it. Once I realized that one of the people who were getting non-committed was Gentalia and that they should be lesbians and not gay men, it all fell into place quickly and the scene just sprang up. I think the reason it is so hilarious is because it goes against all that we hold sacred in relationships. It lets out all the anger that probably many in the audience are holding in their own relationships. And it plays on this need to publicly declare one’s love in front of friends and family. I mean weddings and commitments have gotten completely OUT OF CONTROL, especially since we know that 50% of them fail. It’s all a wonderful and fulfilling delusion that we all allow ourselves to give in to on a regular basis. So “Ceremony” is just a brief respite from that delusion. It gets the audience looking in a certain direction so that when I drop them into “The Last Gay Play,” they are both ready and completely unprepared for what is to come.
Would you talk a little bit about the appearance of Roy’s father in the Grandma scene? When we first learn what happened with him, it is kind of horrifying, clearly abuse in our minds. But in the Grandma scenes, Sutter’s attitude towards him is conciliatory and gentle. I imagine it’s not uncommon for older men to initiate gay youths into sexual experience, although maybe not interracially. Where’s the line of what constitutes abuse?
Well legally, there is no way around it. Sutter was underage when he and Roy’s father had sexual relations. I’ve always thought of Roy’s father as being a weekend dad. That he’d pick up Roy on the weekends and take him to play ball or whatever weekend dads did. I personally didn’t have a weekend dad. I had a mostly absent dad. He would say he was coming over to pick me up and I’d sit outside on the stoop and he’d never show up and my mother would come out eventually and break the news to me and tell me to come back inside. So the imagination goes like this, what if the little boy sitting on the stoop (Sutter) saw Roy’s Father taking his son (Roy) to the play ball and what have you, Roy and Sutter sort of became weekend friends. And then when Sutter became a teenager and Roy was no longer coming over so often to his father’s house, Roy’s father saw Sutter in the Library and remembered the kid or thought there was something about this kid. And Sutter was probably curious, as I’m sure I was as a boy going through puberty and not feeling about girls the way I was told I should be feeling about girls. And so once attention is paid to a gay teenager going through puberty, and that attention comes from a father figure, if you will, then you can see how Sutter would develop a relationship with Roy’s father, especially given that his family was certainly not going to talk about sexuality in any honest way. I don’t think that Sutter thought of his relationship with Roy’s father as molestation. He says he was 16; that’s basically a couple years away from college and you know others are having sex, and I’m sure Roy’s father treated him with respect and kindness and how often does someone whom you’ve been intimate with, seek you out and ask if you’re okay. I think Roy’s father is a really gentle soul who is probably deeply in the closet himself and he wants to make sure Sutter is okay. So instead of showing up to Sutter’s parent’s house, he goes to what he considers neutral ground, the granny’s house. The way the scene reads, we can imply that this was the first sexual encounter of Sutter’s life and what I love about the scene is that it could also be the first homosexual encounter of Roy’s father, at least that’s the way I like to think of that moment. As far as older men initiating gay youth into sexual experiences, I’m sure there are a lot of “Mr. Robinsons” around. I grew up in an interracial environment and frankly most of my experience around homosexuality was interracial. It has simply been a fact of my existence. As to what constitutes abuse, I’ve never been abused but I think it’s a very shady area especially when dealing with a consenting teenager and a consenting adult. Legally the answer is quite clear; emotionally and sexually it is not.
The Moderator in the Writer’s Conference is inept at discussing race and sexual identity, but there certainly exists a thoughtful way to discuss the way the play deals with these issues. “Mug” may not be about a white man, but it seems pretty clear that the mugger is a black man, given that the “muggee” hurls out pretty much every racial stereotype he can think of in his attempt to “avoid a mugging.” Likewise, “Genitalia” may not be about race either, but it certainly satirizes creative naming practices in certain circles of the black community. Race remains a topic not so easy for some to talk about.
It shouldn’t be easy to talk about race in this country. This country has done a horrible job around race relations, so the idea of having it instantly become something that is EASY to talk about is silly. The same goes with being black and gay. For the most part when you say the word gay, one thinks of a white upwardly mobile man. Look at the TV, movies and magazines, most of the images of homosexuality surround white men: “Modern Family,” “Will & Grace” any of the various other sitcoms through the years that even introduced Homosexuality limited it to White Men. The AIDS epidemic was brought to the forefront of our experience because it was happening to white men. There were of course thousands of people of color getting HIV and still to this day we all know the skewing of the statistics but it seems that white men have the corner market on everything gay. Therefore there is this myth that somehow black people are more homophobic than other communities. I don’t know any community that is somehow all embracing of homosexuality. This goes to the question of being black and gay. To me it’s like having a left and a right hand. Do I walk in the room and leave one of my hands outside? Should I walk in the room and leave the gay out of the room, or leave the black out of the room? For most of my career I have had some variation of this question. I think the way to talk to about being black and gay is to talk about being whole, being a whole being. The issue that Sutter is trying to make is that even if the mugger is assumed to be white that doesn’t mean that the play itself is about a white man. You see we’ve been taught to believe that the window out of which we are gazing has to always be that of a white male gaze. It is not. I don’t live my life like that although most of society and especially american theater would have us believe that the white straight male gaze was the default. It is not. “Genitalia” is only about race is you are looking at it from a white male gaze. Otherwise it is about my aunts hanging out their windows talking on the phone. It’s about my mother or niece or sister or what have you having a conversation about something. The Moderator keeps trying to reset the gaze to that of the white male gaze. He keeps trying to moderate the situation into a position where we are doing whatever we are doing for his benefit and understanding. And that is why it is so funny and at the same time so honest. And, by the way, I loved, loved, loved, loved, Adam Greenfield’s Bulletin article and I would maintain that it, too, is from a white male gaze. Once we can understand and own that and appreciate that for what it is and what limits it has, only then can we talk in an “easy” way about race or about anything else.