Something Old, Something New…

It must be my day for Southern literature and drama. I started out this morning reading Glad Hands, a new futuristic gay-themed novel written by Angela Sparrow and Naomi Brooks. Then this evening I attended the Hartford Stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird starring Matthew Modine and Hallie Foote. When I returned home, I received an e-mail announcing the long-anticipated first episode of The Edge of Happiness, a Southern web-based soap opera, written and directed by Mark Jones.

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Back in June Angela Sparrow pulled me aside during one of the Memphis gay pride events and handed me a manuscript of her latest book, Glad Hands (available at Ellodora’s Cave Romantica Publishing). She said that my Homo No Mo play and my ex-gay story inspired the idea of creating a young gay male character who escapes an ex-gay boot camp nestled in the South. (Oh and she makes him drop dead gorgeous. I guess she decided to write me in just as I am :-p )

I read with interest about a future North America split up by culture wars and actual wars into regions with the  Pacific Northwest, “The Tribals” territory becoming the sole haven for LGBT folks. Much of the rest of the continent becomes unsafe and even outright fatal places for queer folk.

Here is an excerpt,

The minute someone got a look at his tattoo, he became meat. Just like he’d been in the hospital. Just like he’d been all summer, drifting from quiet town to quiet town, working hard and living on charity. Charity always came with a price.

He had gone back to staring at the river, remembering the rumors that the Tribals didn’t hate gays. That all the men up there were anyway, and that the women chose one to breed with and then sent him back to the boys. He didn’t believe any of it. But maybe, if some of the stories were true, he might manage to live as a person and instead of as a non-entity, as meat.

I’m a sucker for futuristic worlds and speculative fiction, but I also fell for the story packed with danger, romance, sex, and adventure. I think for gay men who lived under a load of homophobia and heterosexism, a book like this can aid in the healing process while providing new stories to replace the old ones.

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I typically never read a novel twice, but there are three novels that I have read over five times each–Middlemarch, Till We Have Faces, and To Kill A Mockingbird. The last of these three had been chosen for the Big Read in Hartford where I live (well, where I keep my stuff.) The library encourages everyone in the area, young and old, to read the same book. For several months we have public forums, discussions and other events. This year Hartford Stage’s Michael Wilson directed the theatrical version of the book.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote a nearly perfect novel, especially in the structure and the pace of the story. When I read it, I also always marvel at the voice of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the six year old narrator of the story. Lee somehow keeps the narrator young without being childish.

Many people know of the famous film staring Gregory Peck, which of course had to leave out several parts of the novel, parts that I love and that added so much to the depth of the story. The play leaves out even more stripping the play of much of its complexity. It works well enough on stage, although those who have read the book benefit from knowing what was left out and the deeper significance of certain moments. (I am SURE the thousands of Hartford area students as well as the adult audience members all will read the book for the Big Read before attending the play.)

I watched the play as an actor. I especially appreciated the performances by Pat Bowie (Calpurnia) and Virgina Kull (Mayella Ewell). Bowie communicated humor and a depth of relationships with the other characters on the stage. It was clear that her Calpurnia knew them all well and cared about many of them, Black, white, young and old.  Kull had very little time to fill in a big scene, and she played it to perfection literally from her head to her toes using her whole body to tell the story of a young woman oppressed by an abusive father.

The children, Olivia Scott (Scout), Andrew Shipman (Dill Harris) and Henry Hodges (Jem Finch) did fine jobs, especially Hodges, who held the stage well alongside the adult actors. Scott did fine physical work especially in the fight scene at the school (which I think takes place in Finch Landing in the book) and during the tense moment when the children help break up the impending violence outside the jail.

Matthew Modine did well physically as Atticus Finch, the lawyer and single father of Jem and Scout. He displayed his weariness and his charm through his body communicating it clearly and with an ease. He also expressed subtle gestures throughout the play that communicated his discomfort and then growing comfort with expressing love to Scout. His vocal work failed though much of the time making him sound shrill during the courtroom scene and lacking range elsewhere.

Hallie Foote, the daughter of the famous US playwright Horton Foote, wore me out, as they say in parts of the South and several times in the play itself. Foote played the adult Scout and served as the narrator. She seemed so uncomfortable on stage, painfully so, even though she has been doing stage work for years. (But then I remember this same discomfort from when I saw her perform “Three By Foote” in NYC back in the early 1990’s.)

In tonight’s play she began to exit before she finished her lines and seemed awkward and unsure. She projected her voice so that she was practically shouting and the muscles in her neck strained. I wondered if she was enjoying herself up there, and if she really wanted to be an actress or somehow got caught up in it because of her theatrical family. Maybe she was just not feeling well tonight. Michael Wilson, who recently finished staging all of Tennessee William’s plays over the past few years, has begun to do the same with Horton Foote’s plays, so we will see a lot more of Hallie Foote. Please get more vocal work and take some dance classes! (Yes, I have a bitchy theater side to me.)

Watching the play tonight I thought about the need white Americans had in the 1960’s and since to celebrate a character like Atticus Finch, the morally superior white man who rises above the social sludge and outright violent oppression of his day to become the shining prince and savior of the disenfranchised. Perhaps white Americans benefited from having examples of how one can buck the system and rise above it. More so I wonder if Atticus served to assuage guilt over white privilege and apathy.

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I met Mark Jones through Integrity Memphis back in the late 1990’s after I left Love in Action and was looking to see how I could be gay and Christian. An independent gay filmmaker, Mark cast me in bit part in his first movie, Eli Parker is Getting Married, (which not only gave me some time on screen but also bumped my Bacon number to three!)

Mark loves genre films with gay story lines or sub-stories. and since his first gay buddy film set around a wedding, he made a horror flick, Fraternity Massacre at Hell Island. Just listen to the delicious summary,

A pledge must battle homophobia and a killer clown during his fraternity’s Hell Night. Several people at Felix University want the brothers and pledges of ZAP Fraternity dead, but now someone with an Ax to grind is killing them off one by one at the old haunted river park island. While on the island, a few of the college students learn what happens to people to blindly follow leaders without asking questions. Jack Jones must stop the clown, save the fraternity and find the courage to come out of the closet by sunrise

Today Mark launched something new, a web-based soap opera series, On the Edge of Happiness. (Read the review in the Memphis Commercial Appeal) You can view the first four parts of Episode One now on-line and more on March 3rd. This new work is dripping with all the stock characters we have grown to love (and hate) from soap operas, but this time they’re set somewhere South of Memphis. I especially love the opening credits with the cheesy soap opera music and the faces of the characters in cloud bubbles.

It is great to see Helen Bowman on screen again playing a Southern grandmother. She did such a great job in Mark’s first film, and I have since seen her work in a Morgan Jon Fox movie. I also got to see my friend Jonathan Lewis on screen done up like a priest.  Jonathan’s character, John Perkins, will help bring in some of the gay-themed material. I love it when they have gay guys playing gay guys in the movies! So rare for Hollywood, that’s for sure.

So that is my review of Southern literature and drama for the night. I especially felt pleased to bump into Frank Rizzo, theater critic at the Hartford Courant, who just today friended me on Facebook. (When did “friend” become a verb? To Friend or Not to Friend, that is the question.) It’s been over three years since I had any contact wtih Frank and BAM twice in the same day. You can read his blog here.

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