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.