BY STEVE WONG
When the two young men on stage were about to have sex, the silence in the black box theater at USC Upstate was deafening.
That was one of the eye-opening moments in the world premiere of the Proud Mary Theatre Company’s “The Kiss,” a 10-minute play about male-to-male intimacy that opened at USC Upstate Thursday, May 31. It was written and directed by theatre professor Barry Whitfield, and performed by writer/activist Kendall Rashad Gault (Tom) and USC Upstate graduate Dexter Simmons (Jim).
But that was only a tease. It was paired with a longer and more complex play, “Movement: A Gay Pride Fantasia.” Inasmuch that “The Kiss” was as simple, direct, and quickly mind blowing as the male orgasm, “Movement” was the female counterpart: longer, complex, with many peaks of excitement and carrying a load of personal baggage. Together, these two plays give us many insights into the world — both locally and internationally — of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning community.
For those in the LGBTQ community, these plays might be reaffirming and testaments to their lifestyle. For those who consider themselves “straight,” these plays might be a bit shocking and certainly a peek under the skirted bed.
Be warned or disappointed: you will not see any private parts, just a couple of guys in their fashion skivvies. However, if frank language — the use of the F-word and a few others — is offensive to you, brace yourself. And like protesters in “Movement” said, “We are here. We are queer. Get used to it.”
“Movement,” also a world premiere, is a very unique production, written and created by the cast, a method called “devised theatre.” At its core, it is a play without a plot but with a recurring theme that “reimagines and re-examines the myths, heroes, and struggles of the gay rights movement throughout history and pop culture.” The cast of six of various sexual persuasions gives glimpses into the history of the LGBTQ movement — both public and probably private. And this is when it really gets interesting.
To truly appreciate “Movement” and “The Kiss,” it helps to understand that these productions were made possible by Proud Mary Theatre, the first and only LGBTQ theatre company in South Carolina, and it is based in the Upstate, Spartanburg to be more exact. In a city, county, and state as red as Spartanburg, SC, having a theatre company that specializes in LGBTQ concerns is surprising. But to have one play that dramatizes what it is like for two gay men to hook up with different expectations and another play about the fight for equality and recognition in the Upstate — exploring Greenville’s pushback of the 1990s — is striking close to the bone and home.
Some of the glimpses in “Movement” were of international and historical significance: Harvey Milk and Dan White, federal laws, Presidents Clinton and Obama, Elton John, Anita Bryant, Tennessee Williams, Boy George, Matthew Shepard, Cleve Jones, Deadpool, and the Nazis. Others glimpses were presented as probable personal testimonies: Wanting to get married in South Carolina, fighting Greenville’s resolution to keep its “traditional family values,” Bob Jones University shutting down an AIDS clinic, living with HIV, coming out, being fired from The Fresh Market, and simply looking for a bathroom. If there is a line between fiction and autobiography in this play, it is blurred.
None of the actors in “Movement” was named on stage, but they are Converse College student Tiffani Hagan, Converse graduate Brook Nelson, musician and thespian Chase McAbee, Realtor/writer/actor Becky Miller, Proud Mary founder and thespian Sandy Staggs, and Converse grad Paige Vasel.
Their group scenes of protest, singing, and dancing were effective and well executed, but it was their personal stories — that offered the most insight, the most pain, the most joy, and the most determination to be recognized and accepted for who they are — that made this play hauntingly unforgettable. It was directed by Jenna Tamisea Elsor, the Artistic Director of Glow Lyric Theatre in Greenville.
Being LGBTQ in a conservative southern community is hard enough, but to bare your soul naked on a hometown stage takes true courage. I don’t know if any of the actors are LGBTQ, and I don’t need to know. It’s really none of my business. What I do know is that as performing artists they have given of themselves in their own special way: through live theatre. They have shown a spotlight on an oppressed and vilified segment of our society — our local community — without blinking. It is now the task of mainstream theater-goers to look them straight in the eye and accept them — applaud them — for whom they are.
“Movement’ and “The Kiss” are co-sponsored by the Shoestring Players at USC Upstate and continue Friday-Saturday, June 1-2 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 3 at 3 p.m. at the USC Upstate Studio Theatre, 80 University Way in Spartanburg. Tickets are $10, $5 for students and available at www.proudmarytheatre.com.