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Oliver Mayer returns to the ring with ‘Members Only’

Sequel to ‘Blade to the Heat,’ a game-changing gay play for New York and Los Angeles

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Playwright Oliver Mayer. (Photo courtesy Mayer)

Playwright Oliver Mayer may not be gay, but he’s an LGBTQ pioneer, nonetheless.

His play “Blade to the Heat,” which debuted in 1994 at Joseph Papp’s New York Public Theatre before its sold-out Los Angeles run at the Mark Taper Forum two years later, was a watershed moment in queer theatre; centered on a closeted Latino boxer in the late 1950s, it was a story about the struggle of being gay not only within a hyper-masculine and homophobic environment, but also as a person of color. It was controversial, but it was also a hit. Even Madonna wanted the rights to it.

Now, over 20 years later, Mayer – who is an associate professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts – has returned to the world of his groundbreaking play with a sequel, “Members Only.”  Produced by the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, it begins its World Premiere run on Oct. 25.

“Members Only” continues the story of protagonist Pedro Quinn, who will be played by Ray Oriel – the same actor who portrayed the role in the Mark Taper production 22 years ago.  He will be joined by Jon Huertas from the TV hit, “This Is Us,” along with Gabriela Ortega, Darrin Henson, Ron Alvarez, Hansford Prince and Geoff Rivas – as well as Marlene Forte, the playwright’s wife of 12 years, who had wanted to be in the original show but, having no agent at the time, couldn’t get an audition.

The new work picks up with Quinn after two decades in the ring, still closeted and still fighting – despite the ravages of age and the ghosts of his past. It’s the dawn of a new era in America, where people of color are beginning to find equal footing, where sexual behavior and identity have become more open-ended, and where women are pursuing goals previously denied them because of their gender – such as a young female boxer whom Quinn has taken on as his protégé.

It’s also a world on the brink of a plague.

“When I wrote ‘Heat’ in the ‘90s,” Mayer says, “I deliberately set it in 1959-1960 to make things harder on the characters. And even though it took place in the past, people saw it as an ‘AIDS’ play, because it was about a certain kind of mystery and violence around the sexual coming-together of men – and I think they were right.”

He hadn’t intended it, but he recognized that there was, as he puts it, a “seed” in what he had written that could be viewed in the context of the then-current culture.

“With ‘Members Only,’” he says, “I wanted to take that seed and let it bloom – to deal with that actual moment in time with the surviving characters from the original play.”

There were other compelling reasons to revisit his previous work.

“It was important to me when I wrote ‘Blade’ that Quinn was not going to be a victim.  He was not going to come out dead – it was one of the first plays with a gay lead that didn’t die at the end. Yet I thought that the guilt, the regret – the need for absolution – would have only grown in 20 years.”

He reflects, “Maybe it says something about me, too – about how I feel some level of regret for being unable to do anything, except just love people, about some of the terrible things that have happened in my lifetime. So, I thought if I moved Quinn up into a moment when there was this crisis – that was global but that you could still feel, person to person – maybe this character, who has not lived an ‘out’ lifestyle, could have a chance to come into the light.”

Mayer, who is Latino, is also still exploring the relationship between sexuality and ethnicity.

“A big part of both these plays,” he says, “is that I’m dealing primarily with communities of color – black and brown, specifically – and these communities have a history of cruelty and fear, of a lack of understanding around non-binary sexuality.”

He adds, “It’s important to me for an audience – particularly an audience of color – to check itself, to see these things onstage and realize, ‘Yeah, we could do a lot better.’”

There’s also the experience of women.

“One of the big relationships in this play is between Quinn and the female boxer,” he points out.  “This piece takes place before women were welcomed into boxing gyms. There were women in the sport, but they were considered freaks – they were certainly abused, in various ways, and not taken seriously. This young woman is trying to break into this world, and there’s a real threat of physical violence against her in this gym, because it’s so macho – she could be raped.”

It’s a situation that resonates in our current cultural climate, but as Mayer explains, there are parallels to be found throughout “Members Only.”

“Unfortunately, I think we have the same problems that we had back then,” he says, “and in some ways it’s because we feel we’ve advanced. We have to be careful of backsliding, and to be aware of the complexities of living an adult, sexual life in this country.”

It’s the reason, he says, that he felt the need to elaborate on the resonance with AIDS that was found in the earlier play.

“I set this play right before the disease was named – when it was still called ‘GRID,’ when it was this mysterious thing that people didn’t know much about.  These characters are on the front lines, they’re all in danger and don’t know it.”

As someone who came into adulthood during this exact time, his own memories informed his writing.

“In 1982 I was 17,” he remembers.  “I lived in LA, and my mother worked at County General. I was about to leave for Cornell, and I was really a virgin – I had some sexual experience but never all the way – and I didn’t know a damn thing. And she stopped me and she said, ‘There’s something out there, wear a condom.’  It went right through me, because she’d never spoken to me like that and never has again.”

“I’m a mama’s boy,” he continues.  “I did what she told me, and all these years later I tend to think she may have saved my life. I was an activist in school, and I went to a lot of meetings for Latino students, and a lot of our LGBT brothers and sisters were there – and I think about them, because they were also in this moment, ’82-’86 or thereabouts, when it was still very shadowy and full of misinformation – of fear that any particular sexual experience might be the one that brands you forever.”

Reflecting, he adds, “I think about our own moment, and I realize that AIDS is back, and I’m also afraid of the next scourge. I don’t want to live in fear, but as someone who’s lived on the planet for over fifty years I know that the next ‘unknown’ is coming that’s going to change everything. It’s important to brace yourself, even if you don’t know what that is going to be.”

It’s for this reason the playwright thinks it’s important for people to be able to recognize their own world in his material.

“It’s essential for an audience to be able to see itself on stage,” he says, “and the great news, the thing that has changed in 20 years, is that there’s a broader canvas of diversity among characters and the actors playing them. That includes ethnicity and race as well as sexual behavior and other kinds of identifiers – and you don’t have to be of those particular categories to see yourself. Hopefully, we’ve been working on ourselves as humans enough that our compassion for each other is a little more defined.”

Even so, he acknowledges that the current state of discourse in our country is strained. 

“There’s unbelievable levels of tribalism,” he says, “ but I do think that’s the reason why the theatre means more now than ever. People who might feel tribal by day come together in a dark room in the evening and they have to deal with a storyline that they have to figure out on the other end, hopefully as human beings, over a drink. Maybe they can realize that they are no longer quite as tribal – quite as binary – as they were before.”

He goes on, “I think that’s why, even though the theatre is always tottering, the actual need for plays is actually keeping it alive. Especially with companies that represent certain community bodies, like the Latino Theatre Company – even though they’re broker than a joke, they’ve got a reason to produce like they’ve never had. That makes me hopeful.”

It also makes him proud to be part of the local LA theatre community. 

“I’ve put more than 30 years of my life into this community of artists,” he says, “and it’s no coincidence. I think we’re really great. I don’t want to oversell us, but it’s been enough to keep me here, and to make me want to continue.”

While that explains why Mayer remains a fixture of the local theatre scene, it doesn’t answer the question of why this straight-identifying playwright keeps returning to plays that explore gay subject matter.

He laughs about that. 

“It’s funny,” he says.  “I’ve written gay characters, or at least non-binary characters, throughout my entire 33-year career.”  Chuckling, he adds “I guess I’m a little bit gay.”

More seriously, he continues.  “I write about it because it’s hot – and I mean that in more ways than one.”

“As a dramatist,” he explains, “my sense tells me to go after stories that are edgy and difficult – like a boxer who might be coming out as a gay man.”

He goes on, “In my personal experience, and especially by my mother, I have been educated and relaxed into knowing that love is love – people come together, and they find happiness, and that is completely comfortable to me.”

“But even so,” he concludes, “I’ve trained myself to look for the drama in a story. In our American story, gay sensibility goes hand in hand with discomfort, with a threat of violence – and that’s the stuff of drama.”

Mayer’s latest drama promises to be a must-see milestone for all fans of provocative, challenging theatre – not just the LGBTQ ones – and it runs at LATC Oct. 25-Nov. 18.  For tickets and more information, visit www.thelatc.org.

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Belinda Carlisle brings a heavenly Christmas Bash December 16th

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects Belinda’s evolving life

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Courtesy of Belinda Carlise

HOLLYWOOD – On December 16th, 7pm, the city of West Hollywood transforms into a piece of “Heaven on Earth.” An angelic supernatural deity from the sky won’t be delivering this gift, but rather an angel from iconic pop paradise.

That night, Belinda Carlisle makes a grand entrance and gives an eager audience the presence of a queen of pop, the most recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her group, The Go-Gos.

It will be on that night that Belinda Carlisle hosts THE party event of the season with co-host, drag superstar, Trixie Mattel. One sings, one throws comedic shade, and a packed room at the Abbey will be losing their collective minds.  Not that the party itself isn’t all the reason you would need to get it on your calendar, the evening benefits a fantastic charity, The Animal People Alliance (APA), that intertwines the love for animals with the salve to human suffering.

Courtesy of Trixie Mattel

APA’s charter reads: “To provide high quality and compassionate care, of the highest standards, to neglected street animals in India and Thailand. We train and employ vulnerable people from the community, and pay living wages that help them improve their standard of living.”   The organization, by employing people who would otherwise be stateless and/or in poverty, has treated over 16000 street animals since 2014. Their programs for animals include rabies vaccinations, sterilizations and other emergency health aid.

Belinda sat down with me this week on the podcast RATED LGBT RADIO to talk about her life, her amazing career, her party and the strength she has achieved in standing up to both inner and outer demons.

She survives. She fearlessly opens herself up, and if anyone scrutinizes her past… she will lead the way.  She happily tells of being a member of the most successful all-women pop bands in history.  They sang and wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments. They did it on their terms. No men were needed or required. She candidly shares about her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction. 

Belinda shows profound compassion for those struggling with addiction and darkness, “Addiction is a sickness…it is a disease of perception, you can’t see your effect on other people… It is a trap you feel you can’t get out of. Every addict has a heart and a humanity that is obscured by addiction. It is a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to go through. It is hard to remember that there is a heart under all that, there is something divine under all that darkness.”

Her interest focuses more on what came after she embarked on recovery  “My life is much more exciting since sobriety, even more exciting than the hey day with the Go-Gos. For anyone out there who is worried about aging, or life being over at a certain point—it’s not. Life is just the most amazing miracle and privilege.”

Her significance for the LGBTQ community, impacts many of the most vulnerable.  She is the mom of a gay man, activist and writer, James Duke Mason. His birth made her examine the trajectory of fame, drugs, and rock & roll in which she was on, careening threateningly close to disaster and death.

She had settled comfortably into maternal nurturement when Duke came out to her at the age of 14. Belinda had been impressed with Duke’s ability to explain the situation to her. She found out that he had been online with PFLAG for weeks learning about how to present his news to her, information to give and educated about key talking points. 

Appreciating their real life help of a young person in need, Belinda vehemently supported PFLAG, the Trevor Project and others ever since. “I am so glad I have a gay son, I can’t even tell you,” she says.

Artistically, she also continues to thrive.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted the Go-Gos this year.  It was an honor 15 years in the making.  It should have been an obvious choice to put them there.

As the first all-female group making it big, they sang, wrote every note and played every instruments. The Go-Go’s, a 2020 American/Irish/Canadian documentary film directed and produced by Alison Ellwood, cast attention on the Hall of Fame oversight, and essentially made the case for how special the group actually was.

Belinda also recently released a new single Get Together a cover of the 1967 Youngbloods hit. The Youngbloods sang it at Woodstock in 1969 to make a statement about the divisions of the Viet Nam era in America.

Belinda sings it now, her voice pure, mature and as an anthem making a plea, if not a motherly order, to reconsider the divisions we are experiencing today.  She says, “We live in this age of outrage.  This song is ‘ok people, CHILL OUT’. All this divisiveness is not going to get us anywhere. It’s timely.”

Beyond Get Together, Belinda works on more new music including singles and a new album.  She continues to produce with the top song creators of the industry including award winning song writer Diane Warren and Go-Gos dates at the end of the year.

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects the channeling of Belinda’s evolving life.  When she lived in France, she released a French collection.

As she delved into spirituality and the culture of Thailand, she released the powerful Wilder Shores, which blended a spiritual mantra into pop hooks. “Chanting is a science, it has a super power. It is not airy fairy,” she states.

The fact is, Belinda Carlisle continues arriving and thrilling.  She does not need to prove herself to anyone.  She has defined the next thirty years of her life as philanthropy.  

“I just wing it as I go along. I learned what it is like to work from the heart. Work in a way where you don’t care about any kind of outcome. That is how I am working now. I am just having fun, and doing just what I want. I am really lucky that way,” she declares.

Her party on December 16th at the Abbey appears right on track to bear that out.

Love, humanity, care of animals and a major splash of fabulousness enveloping an enthused audience.

In other words, pure Belinda.

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Listen to the full interview:

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Andy Grammer partners with Trans Chorus of Los Angeles

Celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are

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Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (Screenshot via YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (America’s first Trans Chorus, embracing all members of the trans, non-binary and intersex communities) for a special live performance of “Damn It Feels Good To Be Me” – celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are. What a special moment. In conjunction with the partnership a donation has been made by Andy to the TCLA.

A note from TCLA: “The Chorus really enjoyed the song and especially performing it with Andy around the piano. It was upbeat and expressed how important it is to live your life and your authenticity and to feel good about who you are. That is the thrust of our Chorus philosophy of moving from victim to victorious.”

Connect with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles:https://transchorusla.org/

Andy Grammer – Damn It Feels Good To Be Me (featuring Trans Chorus of Los Angeles)

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Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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