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    To Be or Not

    By Jewelle Gomez–

    I’m what the world used to call a “theatre gay,” which is somebody, usually a guy, who will see anything on Broadway or Off Broadway or Off Off Broadway as long as the proverbial or virtual curtain goes up. Yes, during the pandemic I sang along (no small task) to the entire online tribute to Stephen Sondheim. And it’s not only musicals. Give us a good, long Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Angels in America, Parts 1 & 2, and we’re there.

    But this is different from an “opera queen,” which somebody else will have to write about because I don’t have enough words … except to say: the recent new version of Harvey Milk at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. (Review in Broadway World: https://tinyurl.com/5n84ef2m)

    My grandmother, who danced on the stage in the 1930s, filled me with fantasies of her adventures tap dancing across the country. And while I scrambled in New York City looking for jobs in television production, my heart was in that dark cavernous space where the ghost light glowed. As one of the spectral characters in a play of mine observes: “Some say theatres keep the ghost light lit at night to keep us from haunting the current inhabitants. I think more likely it’s there to show us the way back home.”

    For over a decade I stage managed dozens of productions of plays by everyone from Ed Bullins to Sam Shepard to Leonid Andreyev. The ghost light certainly shone for queer people. We came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. My first serious lover in New York City, Sandy Ross, was a lighting designer who worked up and downtown. Harry “Skip” Waters, Jr., who helped me write my play about James Baldwin in 2011, was one of the first gay actors I met in the 1980s before he went on to be featured in Back to the Future.

    That great empty stage was where we felt we could be ourselves as we pretended to be other people. There was an intensity there in which most of us thrived even if our specific, queer selves weren’t much reflected. This was especially true for lesbians.

    But we “theatre gays” still find home back stage and on. We’re lucky in the Bay Area to have two queer theatres: Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory Theatre Center, which has produced my plays. I have the same “home” feeling when I enter their spaces. Just before the lights go up the entire world is open to me; anything can happen. Whatever is going on in the street or in our relationships … the dreams we have might come true.

    This year, watching the Tony’s, I got a better glimpse of the dream. I wore my Fun Home t-shirt (5 Tonys, 2016) to celebrate out, queer, Brown Tony winner Ariana DeBose hosting the awards this year. As she said slyly during the telecast: “The Great White Way is becoming more of a nickname than a how to guide.”

    And we do come alive when the ghost light clicks off and the stage lights snap on. Michael R. Jackson swanned onto the stage in a swirling pink maxi-coat to get his playwriting Tony. Billy Porter was maximum diva in a sparkly suit singing “On the Street Where You Live.” DeBose made the greatest statement in her opening outfit because it was designed by her girlfriend, Sue Makkoo.

    This year we were out in many ways and we were our most dramatic selves. To paraphrase the Bard: all the stage is our world.

    Jewelle Gomez is a lesbian/feminist activist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She’s written for “The Advocate,” “Ms. Magazine,” “Black Scholar,” “The San Francisco Chronicle,” “The New York Times,” and “The Village Voice.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @VampyreVamp

    Published on July 28, 2022