Tonight at Feinstein’s/54 Below at 7pm and 9:30pm New Musicals at 54 is presenting a concert version of my musical A Strange Loop (tickets can be purchased here–use discount code LOOP35 to get 35% off the cover charge in the main dining room only).
A Strange Loop is a piece I have been working on in some form or another since about 2003, when I graduated from college and found myself living in Jamaica, Queens in an old lady’s bungalow on the 2nd floor for $400 a month. I was 22 years old and it was an odd and challenging time for me because I had fled Detroit to get away from my black upbringing and all of the baggage that I felt came with that–things like having to go to church every Sunday and being a part of the drama and intrigue of a small Baptist church, or waking up with headaches and dents in my forehead from the doo-rags and skull caps that were worn to ensure I maintained “brush waves,” or very poorly (and very barely) hiding that I was gay from the world while at the same time not even having a clear or confident assertion of what being gay meant for me specifically.
It’s hard for me to track where my self-hatred began. Did it start in middle school, when it was clear that I was “different” but had no ground in which to plant my feet in order to thrive in the truth of who I truly was? Was it in high school in the circle of other black gay boy teens I met and wanted to fit in with and who I sought brotherhood and camaraderie with and whose identities and marginalization were so similar to mine but whose points-of-view on the world and themselves couldn’t be more different? Was it within the confines of my family who had no idea how to support me emotionally at that particular time or in fact, that I was desperately in need of a particular kind of emotional support at all? I don’t blame them really because I gave them absolutely no clues about any of this and that was because I didn’t even recognize the need in myself. The self-hatred was totally normal to me.
Particularly after coming out to myself and then to this community of black boys which then opened up the possibility of exploring sexuality, which I felt nothing but apprehension and even more self-hatred about. Because suddenly, with the closet door starting to open, I realized that I had nothing to wear. I felt completely ill-equipped to come into my own power sexually, socially, emotionally, or politically. All I saw was a fat, black/not-black-enough, gay, effeminate, nerdy, lisping wet dingleberry of a person dragging from one room to the next. I imagined that every gay boy (and in particular, every black gay boy) who saw me was laughing behind my back or shrinking away in revulsion at the thought of me as a sexual person. I taught myself very early on to turn off any kind of signal that I was interested in anyone in anyway for fear of not only their rejection, which in my mind, was a given, but it was even deeper than that–I almost felt like these boys were royalty and I was a subject and if I did not properly prostrate myself before them, I would be in violation of the law and tossed into a dungeon set for subsequent execution.
Again: my self-hatred game was STRONG.
And so at 22 years old, I was living in New York, the supposed mecca of gay liberation and I was anything but liberated. Wherever I went, there I was. Because I had nothing else, I started writing about it. But not about it as much as from within it. The piece was a monologue entitled Why I Can’t Get Work, which was at the time, a very real problem. I was living in old Ms. Ruby’s house in Jamaica, Queens with her very loud, rambunctious autistic nephew Donovan, broke, saddled with student loan debt, no marketable skills and a fucking playwriting degree. Why I Can’t Get Work detailed the isolation of what it felt like to be me at that time (and also embarrasingly, the infatuation I had then with Craig Lucas, John Patrick Shanley, Tony Kushner, and Rufus Wainwright, all white men I now hold in low-to-no regard in my more militant black old age but I digress). At that time, I was calling the protagonist, Darryl:
So uh, I’m doing all this temp work ‘cause “the market’s bad.” Which is this expression that’s sort of driving me outta my head lately. ‘Cause it sounds like all those people you ever hear rambling in the all-knowing-New-York- Times-Reader-voice when they say
“Now uh, I don’t wanna talk partisan politics … uh ‘cause uh, you know, the ‘market’s bad’ … and uh, the problem with America really is we need to stop supporting Israel … and uh, I was gonna sell my house but not uh … since nine-eleven, you know the market’s bad.’” Or whatever. So in the meanwhile, I’m temping. Whatever they’ll give me. Mostly administrative stuff, mail room, reception. But then my mother’s calling me on the phone with that Southern Sunday sadness in her long distance voice, wants to know, “Darryl, what you gonna do with a BFA degree?” Well, a war’s on now, so I guess nothing. Anyway given the current circumstances, in my head, I made up an image of this old Russian woman who wanders around New York with a mouth full of bloody piano keys instead of teeth. ‘Cause that’s how I feel sometimes. She walks around New York, turns down 14th Street at Union Square with her lips in a singing circle ready to sing alto for me in my own personal choir; maybe a song from Three Penny Opera. And sometimes when things get really bad, I say, “she’s my New York agent” because of course, I wanna move to LA by 2005 and have either a sitcom or a first-look deal with Scott Rudin even though I’ve heard all the rumors about him and then it hits me that I’m fresh outta undergrad writing all these plays about DL black men, or a mother and daughter talking about abortion or Jesus as a hostage victim like I know or anybody cares. Which I guess all goes to show why I can’t get work.
And then my Dad’s calling me on the phone. With that delayed reaction flashback love as bright as Vietnam burning in voice. And I’m glad to hear from him but I say,
“I’m okay.” ‘Cause his love is too ripe for me to take unconditionally. Oh, and he’s a drunk too. Then he says,
“heyyyy, son. I just called to check up on you.” And oddly enough with no malice, I say, “I ‘preciate that.” And we hang up on each other. Then five minutes later, we actually hang up the phone.
But in the space of that five minutes, it all comes bubbling to the surface; how I felt. How the little boy felt. How Detroit felt. What it looked like. ‘Cause every Sunday in Detroit was lying across the orange not even shag carpet after church with Mom in the kitchen making brown, white, and green and Dad reading the newspaper; me lying on the orange not even shag carpet trying not to focus on how much I hated the way light came in the living room with my Calvin and Hobbes comics spread before me as gray as the eye could see and it was in that precise moment that I realized I was a puppet in search of a blue fairy. Which is probably the worse metaphor I’ve come up with to date and yet another reason why I can’t get work; writing or otherwise. So I go shopping to forget about it all, but still thinking about last night, last night being relative to every night of my life. Watched “The View.” Plotted Star Jones’ death. Watched Diane Sawyer talk about the connection between hardcore porn and General Motors–go figure. Watched Paris Hilton. Train wreck. Watched R Kelly. I hate that nigga. Watched the Whitney Houston interview; goddamn. Watched Peter Jennings and Ted Koeppel talk about the next fiscal year, nuclear arms, racism, etcetera, and I thought about that word–etcetera. I often use it to describe myself on Yahoo Personals or Gay dot com because it describes everything. Including the feeling you have before you’ve moved on but after you’ve accepted that your pain is your own despite who may have caused it; which, at least I was really glad when they said they wouldn’t reinstate the draft. And it’s really great I’m not suicidal ‘cause if I were, I’d be dead.
And on his birthday, I watch clips of Martin Luther King Jr. on Oprah and I keep thinking: why couldn’t he have just been a homosexual? ‘Cause of course, I want everything to be gay and awful ‘cause I can’t hold onto the meat of things. But also, sometimes it seems so embarrassing that Martin was ever here given how it’s all fucked up now, Race, racism, nonviolent protest in a violent world, etc. It’s embarrassing. As embarrassing as a bad yo-Mama joke. As embarrassing as this revolution they keep talking about in spoken word poems on HBO DEF Poetry Jam. But hey, all I know is what I wish and what I think. And my mind seeks to destroy things: people’s ideals, American complacency, and meanwhile I’m going all white girl on everybody saying, “where is my happiness? Where is my happiness? Where is my happiness” … which I got from “The Hours”— a movie that I’m ashamed to admit moved me a little but thank God it didn’t win an Oscar and thank God nobody black won that year so I could know for myself that blacks winning Oscars isn’t a thing anymore. It’s been checked off the like, you know, collective unconsciousness’ you know, “to-do” list. So that must be why I can’t get work. ‘Cause I’m so cynical. But yeah, hey, I’ve been seriously thinking about freedom these days too; I really have.
(a conscientious pause)
‘Cause here’s the deal with me. I didn’t come out to myself until I was 16 years old and later in college they tell me in “coming out discussion group” that it’s a lifelong process but that’s not what I told myself in the mirror that night with the lights off for a dramatic flair after sitting up all day getting hard reading a passage describing a naked man’s body in a Clive Barker Novel–Clive Barker who I later find out has a black husband which for whatever reason seems like “WHAT THE FUCK?,” but meanwhile I’m in the dark convincing myself that I’m gay–but what about all those fags I used to run with in high school? I thought I’d crossed that finish line a loooong time ago; I mean, c’mon, a lifelong process? I mean, fuckin’ A, man! See, I didn’t come out to myself until I was 16 years old and I felt 16 like a prison sentence, especially in light of all those guys from the “black gay teenage story line” of my student film of a life who ran around with their dicks in each others’ mouths and assholes, I mean, even if Shysuanne did just die from AIDS, I just wanted to run like a wolf with them from bar to bar to Palmer Park and fag-skating on Mondays at Northland Roller Rink after choir rehearsal. But all I got was a 6-month thing with a boyfriend who refused to blow me ‘cause I pre-cum a lot and a procession of old men trying to fuck me in various and sundry bathrooms but then Shysuanne did just die from AIDS so maybe I was right. And there’s nothing I love more than being right. It’s just like the other day this guy tries to pick me up while I’m waiting for the 6 on my way to rehearsal for this play I wrote and my first thought is, “what if he’s got AIDS? Condoms are bullshit, what if he’s a gift giver who’s trying to lure you somewhere to infect you on purpose?” And this is all me in my glorious gay 20s when I should be laughing AIDS in the face and daring it to come after me. But this is not what they taught me in high school health.
This is not what Dad taught me about his cousin Melvin who apparently ran around on his wife for years smoking crack and fucking men on the DL and got AIDS; something the Taylors hold against him in that patient, Christian way black families are so renowned for. So even though in that moment waiting for the 6 I think, “maybe he’s just into you,” I think right after that, “he probably just wants to gay bash you.” So that’s where I’m at; a bitter custody battle: thought versus thought and thought wins.
And I say this knowing very well that I can manufacture attraction towards any man I see, like when he comes to tell my writing class that life is shit and we’re all probably gonna die of cancer (which is all you have to say to make me fall in love with you) and a little voice goes, “hmm … would Craig Lucas fuck me?” Or the next class with all his sweet sixty eight dollar words and long standing problems of virtue and happiness and Democratic Socialist bullshit that I sort of love and don’t understand, I’m like, “would Tony Kushner fuck me?” Or John Patrick Shanley, God Shanley, who has the last of the truly great laughs and who in my imaginary world would be a homosexual and not just any homosexual, but a really aggressive top. Well, if only for my sake, I guess. And I think, would any of these men see something in me I don’t see in myself? Could they give me some of that fire? But it doesn’t even have to be them. It could be some old Indian cab driver or the sales guy at Radio shack. It’s any man. Go figure. It must be my Daddy complex. It must be my fuck-me-harder-complex. But who cares, right? I mean I can’t even go after guys. Why? Well, I don’t go after guys if for no other reason than I don’t want to get my heart broken ‘cause no thank you; heartbreak? Gotta box full of that shit. Little shards like old broken Christmas ornaments. And even more importantly, I’m one of those people who wants some thing out of it. I don’t accept that musical theater song that says “the choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.” ‘Cause I’ve been there. Case in point; I recently made a pass at a good friend of mine ‘cause I was convinced that he was playing hard-to-get and needless to say, Darryl got the smack down. It was the nicety-nice smack down but you could definitely feel the sting. And so I shook that ornament box to hear the jangling of my one-way love. ‘Cause it’s like … like everything else in my life, like with my parents; oh, there’s a story. Jesus Christ. When I was 17 I came out to my parents; which, kids, don’t try this at home; but dumbly enough, what was most devastating in my mind was not that I was now exposed as a fag but that I was no longer the more favored child. Look, I don’t know if I was the more favored child but I always thought I was better than him. He was better looking, I was smarter. He was blacker, I could sing. He had the big dick, I had been to France, Luxembourg, and Israel. But as I sat there in my Nautica bathrobe and broke everybody’s heart, Jake was the only one in that room crying. I mean I know Mom and Dad were upset or whatever, but Jake is the only one I remember crying. Oh and it killed me totally! But I laughed at him crying. In my head. Laughed while his grown ass, this loser college dropout ran into the dining room fucking sobbing and banging his head against the wall while Dad rocked him in his arms like a newborn saying
“he dunno what he’s doing.” I thought to myself–briefly a villain–“I know exactly what I’m doing”–all while sitting there laughing at them all. In my head. And the laugher went on like this for months until I summoned up the courage to lie to them that I wanted to change and be straight. But never mind that. ‘Cause this is all after a thousand dollars worth of therapy and running into my therapist and her white husband and their biracial daughter at the opera with my mother and her nosy friend we don’t speak to anymore during the intermission of “Porgy and Bess.” And me talking to Dr. Kliger about “what a marvelous coloratura the actress is!” while my black mother is right across the room with her nosy friend we don’t speak to anymore. Such a scene. My black mother and her black son at the opera in the mezzanine in the rich white folks’ box seats because my black mother was willing to pay the extra money for she and her black son to sit with the white folks so they’d know they weren’t better than us. And me loving my black mother for this while I shake Dr. Kliger’s white husband’s hand and tell him that it’s nice to meet his white self and hating my black mother for this two weeks later when we’re at our last family therapy session and she asks me like it’s some sort of social pleasantry “why ain’t you tell me you saw Dr. Kliger at the opera?” As if I would’ve been like “oh, hello, Mom! Hello, Friend-We-Don’t-Talk-To-Anymore! This is the woman who has been hired under the pretense that she will shrink the fag away until he’s this big even though everybody knows deep down that it’s all shit and lies! Isn’t Bess a marvelous coloratura?”
But whatever. ‘Cause ultimately, the bug up my ass is that I thought once I came out with it, this gay shit with my parents, it was over; I thought once I came out with it, this love shit with my friend, it was over. That there would be freedom in the truth and in being so emotionally open and that I’d be all ennobled and that like, Nordic gods with winged feet would come down and whisk me off to some majestic mountain peak. But again, I just shook that box of broken ornaments full of my heartbreak.
But I didn’t get sad. What I got was that anger that disguises itself as sadness and refuses to let you cry no matter how much you want to. And it usually grows into this feeling of “oh well, no one cares;” which, aggravating as that is, there’s a violin loveliness in it to have to say yourself “you are on your own!” Hmm. Maybe that’s why I can’t get work. ‘Cause I refuse to be a man about that?
And oh, look, the World Trade Center is falling down.
So a little overwhelmed by this point, I’m done shopping, a seesaw of bags down 14th Street when I realize I don’t live in Manhattan anymore. So I turn back, headed toward 8th Ave to the E-train, back home to Jamaica, Queens where I live in this little upstairs apartment of a little house owned by this hunched over little old lady who always wears a headwrap and jogging pants that cling to her little legs and who always tells me how sad life is and how it didn’t turn out the way she thought it would every time I come down to pay the rent. And the thing is, I never used to feel black before I moved out here. And I bet according to Bell Hooks or Toni Morrison or Amiri Baraka or whoever else probably hates me, this is even more so because I’d take Rufus Wainwright over Alicia Keys any day of the week. ‘Cause I’m an assimilationist, I guess. But being from Detroit will do that to a nigga.
(a pause; beat boxes)
“You run from things that you think are gonna weigh you down.” Certain cultural baggage. And this realization kills me inside as I get off the train and warily don’t smile past the Army Reserve guards waiting at the exit turnstile at the Jamaica station on my way to the Q83 bus stop. ‘Cause I used to think I was person. I used to peel [sic] BLACK the layers of my skin until I found the dirt and the agony like … like … like … a harmonica versus an accordion; that was the war I was searching for inside myself. ‘Cause I was angry or THOUGHT I was angry and I’m not blaming anybody but my life was this ridiculous hurting for a boy who had tried but could not find the difference between himself and a Tori Amos song. So I tried instead, to find all these ways to deny my experience; to say “I am not in pain.” Over and over like an incantation. French, German, even conversational Spanish, which to my knowledge, is not conversational.
(whips out his “resume”)
Or more importantly, resume language with bullets and subheadings¾
(a la Rod Serling)
666 Shithead Way
Bumblefuck Queens, NY
ADMINISTRATIVE SCREW UP 1981¾Present
(mimes shooting a pistol)
- Bullet one. Did not cry at the front desk/reception area of a busy college residence hall during senior year because student loans would soon be due and friend had just canceled dinner plans.
(mimes a rifle)
- Bullet two! Did not think father’s coworker was about to give him a hug when he was actually just reaching for a stapler.
(mimes a rocket launcher)
- BULLET THREE! Did not abruptly leave a friend at movies with guy she met during the movie once it ended because it seemed easier to make transition smooth than to stay and figure out if I was about to get dumped by the friend which of course, I was, because the friend of course, ended up leaving with said guy to go eat at some East Village Indian restaurant which was understandable because the guy, of course, ended up being heir to some sort of multi-million dollar inheritance and who, of course, tried to, of course, get into her panties all night, while I, of course …
(overwhelmed but continues)
… walked past past Dojo, past Tower Records, past K-Mart on my way home to my dorm room where Billy, my of course annoyingly faggy Jewish musical theater loving roommate would invariably be crying on the phone to his mother about how “emotionally blocked” he was. And that whole journey home I was just … sadness, sadness, sadness thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about these things, thinking about how I ended up alone once again even when all I’d wanted to do that night was go to the Angelika with my friend to see this stupid movie about Jeffrey Dahmer while my friend, ultimately I hear, kept her panties on and left the guy with blue balls and purposely never called him back even though he was richer than God but–BUT, punch line; he was white.
And this is us laughing ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee about the whole thing over fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread at the Pink Tea Cup on Grove Street because we, of course, know exactly what kind of niggers we are.
Only in New York, kids! Laughing at the absurdity of a whole night!
(dee-jays it on the turntable)
Sk-sk-sk-skills. Microsoft Word, Excel–kind of, Outlook Express, changing the subject, and stealing all the free condoms from the RAs in my dorm before graduation from undergrad so that I could always jack off without making a mess on the sheets or my needlessly hairy stomach so that I could always justify not taking a shower before job interviews tomorrow, “tomorrow” and “job interviews” being relative to every tomorrow and interview of my life; which, I need to remind myself not to eat in the morning so that when some handsome man in a surprisingly boring suit asks me, “so what brings you here to us today? Or, why do you want this job?,” I don’t throw up or fart.
REFERENCES. Available on request. So. There’s my resume. Would you hire me for your boyfriend? Your son? Your assistant?
Anyway, I’m home now. It’s two or three months after I’ve moved in and I still haven’t put all my shit away but that’s okay I guess. So I put the groceries up and prepare a bowl of Ramen noodle spaghetti, home just in time for “All My Children,” just in time to have the thrill of watching Erica Kane walk into a room.
(a long searching pause)
So I guess I am in pain. There, I said it out loud. Finally. Harmonica versus accordion. That’s the war I’ve been searching for inside myself and I think I’ve found it. I am the protagonist here. The protagonist. The agony. The agon. Agon. Agon. Agon; what a word. Apparently it means “the struggle” in Greek or Latin. They taught me that at school and all I heard from this frighteningly beautiful word was … scores and scores of choirs of Christmas angels telling me how normal this all is and that I should relax because I’m only 20-something and that everything would eventually be all right and
(gentle but thorough mocking)
“you’ll get a job/ you’ll get a boyfriend/you’ll get your parents’ approval/your friends’ll appreciate you … someday; c’mon, Darryl; just think about someday all the time; think about Liz Phair and what her journey was like out of the underground indie rock scene in Chicago into so much fame and other bullshit that she eventually had to quote-unqote sell out/practice interviewing yourself for Time Out or American Theater Magazine/pretend that Alice Walker dedicated a novel to you and called you like a sweet spirit or something ridiculous like that/pretend that Bill Cosby went on Larry King Live and called you a disgrace to the race/think about things like that and then someday you’ll be a success.” So okay. I guess that’s enough.
(a long pause; not quite satisfied)
And I might be able to accept all that in theory, but then there’s this jealousy in me like a silk red scarf blowing in the wind. A jealousy that Franciso de Goya painted Don Manuel Orsorio instead of me, me, a far more suitable subject at 3 months old and even now in my glorious gay 20s, looking up into my mother and father’s eyes wanting to have my picture taken.
(Someone takes a picture. Fade to black.)
And that was that. That monologue was performed at a youth theatre festival I used to be a part of at the old Center Stage NY as part of Rebel Verses. I cast an actual underwear model (who really wanted to get into acting) as Darryl, which tells you again just how deep the river of my self-hatred was but c’est la vie.
Along the way, music began to enter the piece, the piece began to change, I began to change, the piece began to change again and again and again and as I look back on that piece, I am surprised by how much empathy I have for “Darryl.” I am also surprised by how, for as much as I’ve changed and let so much of the self-hatred go, I am still him. And he is still/now me. Someone once told me “we contain a multitude of forces.” And I think that’s right. Without giving too much (more) away, tonight at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 15 black gay men are going to take to the stage to refract a feedback loop of one facet of what it can look like to walk inside a black, gay man’s skin with intelligence humor, vulnerability, and rage. I’ve previously talked about “diversity” in musical theatre and how important it is for theatre makers to decenter whiteness. Well, here we are being the change we want to see (and have always been) in the world. This is only the beginning. Join us at 7pm and/or 9:30pm and prepare to get your wig knocked back.