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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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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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The Associated Press: Oscars Special, editor’s picks

For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Hollywood’s’ Dolby Theatre

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

NEW YORK – As the entertainment, motion picture and film communities gather in Los Angeles for the 94th annual Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday evening, the editors of the Associated Press have curated the news agency’s top six stories prior to this evening’s gala.

Oscars set for return to normal, except all the changes

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For the first time in two years, the Academy Awards are rolling out the red carpet at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for what the film academy hopes will be a…Read More

The Oscars are tonight. Here’s how to watch or stream live

The 94th Academy Awards are right around the corner with just enough time to squeeze in watches of some of the 10 best picture nominees before the lights go down in the Dolby…Read More

Oscar Predictions: Will ‘Power of the Dog’ reign supreme?

Ahead of the 94th Academy Awards, Associated Press Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle share their predictions for a ceremony with much still up in the…Read More

List of nominees for the 94th Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Nominees for the 94th Academy Awards, which were announced Tuesday via a livestream. Winners will be announced on March 27 in Los Angeles. Best actor:…Read More

Oscars to celebrate ‘Godfather,’ ‘Bond’ anniversaries

LOS ANGELES (AP) — James Bond didn’t get an Oscar nomination this year, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t be part of the ceremony. It’s the 60th anniversary of the first…Read More

Oscars celebrate May, Jackson, Ullmann and Glover

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elaine May was the last to arrive and the first to leave at the Governors Awards on Friday in Los Angeles. Her fellow honorees, Samuel L. Jackson, Liv…Read More

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