Closet Dramas

A pair of AIDS dramas that opened here last weekend have more in common than their still-timely subject matter. Both Before It Hits Home and Lips Together, Teeth Apart are helmed by topflight directors who abandoned local stages for greener pastures, and both have been the subject of some artful dodging by their producers in promoting the shows' sensitive themes.

Black Theatre Troupe's voice-mail ad for Before It Hits Home warns callers about the show's "mature themes," and press releases for Sun City-adjacent Theater Works' production of Lips Together, Teeth Apart mention "the unsettling presence of gay neighbors" in the play's story. Although both companies are attempting a much-needed departure from safer fare with these shows, both are busily downplaying the gay and AIDS angles of their new programs.

"A lot of black people don't want to hear about AIDS," according to Black Theatre Troupe executive director David Hemphill. "They say, 'White folks get that. That's not about me.' That's why I wanted to produce this show--to remind those folks that this is our problem, too."

To ensure that "those folks" will show up to see Cheryl West's drama about a married-with-child African-American man who discovers he's HIV-positive, Hemphill has taken some careful--and enormously un-PC--promotional precautions. "In our season brochure, we wrote that the play is about a black jazz musician, but we didn't mention that he's bisexual," Hemphill confesses. "Part of my job, unfortunately, is to go after the dollar. I try to do it without sacrificing art, when I can."

Sacrificing integrity, on the other hand, seems to be the name of the game in this theater town. Director Matthew Mazuroski, who returned from his new home in Kansas City to direct Before It Hits Home, knows this better than most: One of his last assignments before blowing town last year was a production of the very gay Twilight of the Golds for Arizona Jewish Theater Company, which chose to delete any mention of the show's queer content from its press materials.

"If David is trying to put the gay angle on the back burner," Mazuroski says, "it's because he wants people to come in and see Before It Hits Home, rather than have them say, 'It's a show about fags' and stay away."

Theater Works artistic director Gregory Jaye is all for keeping gay plays in the closet. "We've had people call and say, 'I'm tired of having this gay thing crammed down my throat,'" Jaye says. "Despite the unfortunate choice of words, I get what they're saying. As long as it's just a man in a dress, our older audience members go for it. To them, drag is more of Uncle Miltie. But when we get into characters who are real live gay people, our audience is uncomfortable."

Jaye claims that Lips Together was chosen because the number of AIDS cases among the elderly is growing, a fact that he thinks his largely septuagenarian audience needs to know--even if the play doesn't deal with the effect of AIDS on the elderly.

"Senior citizens are about the only community left who think that AIDS is a gay issue," he says. "There's a good lesson to be learned here about dealing with misconceptions about AIDS."

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned here is about the horrors of homophobia. Lips Together director Joe Marshall's the only one among his colleagues who seems embarrassed about all the smoke and mirrors used to promote the play he's shaping. "I don't think that 72-year-old Mildred really wants to come see this show," Marshall admits. "But no one's asked me to reshape the dialogue for her, either. I'm not in charge of promoting the show, I'm in charge of directing it."

On the other hand, perhaps theater professionals here can't afford to be broad-minded. Hemphill reports that, while his production originally had sponsorship commitments from three different African-American service organizations, each agency bowed out before opening night. And Jaye is still fielding calls about his company's pro-gay choice in entertainment: "One guy I talked to said, 'I don't go to the theater to be educated. I go to be entertained.'"

--Robrt L. Pela

Black Theatre Troupe's production of Before It Hits Home continues through Sunday, January 24, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland. Lips Together, Teeth Apart continues through Sunday, January 31, at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela