By Jeff Walsh
When I was first trying to come out, the images of ACT-UP scared the hell out of me. Angry gay men in New York City were not the warm embrace I needed to bring me out of the closet. Once I was out, though, I wanted to learn everything about what had happened, so I turned to other journalists. My heroes as I exited the closet were Larry Kramer and Michelangelo Signorile, who both wrote for The Advocate at the time. I spoke with Signorile several times on the phone when I first came out, usually dreaming up some dumb journalistic reason to justify the call (since I was a newspaper reporter at the time). And the first specifically gay play I saw was when Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me" opened in the Village, and I dragged my straight friend, John, to see it. It was the sequel to Kramer's "The Normal Heart," which was about the early days of the AIDS Epidemic in the gay community.
When I was planning my brief trip to New York, I remember paging through a copy of The Village Voice, and three things caught my eye. The first was an article or ad for Kramer's play, which had a picture of the yummy John Cameron Mitchell (years before he became Hedwig), who starred in the production. The second thing I saw was a review of Tim Miller's "My Queer Body," which ran with a photograph of him from the waist up, with writing all over his naked torso. My naivete growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, led me to believe that the ad had to be misleading, since men could never take all of their clothes off onstage. The third thing was an ad for "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," by David Drake, with its image of Drake barechested, with a leather jacket draped over his arms. They seemed like something from another world, despite all of them occurring 2.5 hours from my just-out-of-the-closet life.
Whether those three things were in the same Village Voice or not is speculative at this point, but I know they all occurred at the same point in my life. Time may have merged them into one memory at this point. But in the years since then, I've met Kramer, Signorile, and Miller. And I've seen way more of Tim Miller than I once thought possible, in a variety of his inspirational shows.
So I really feel like I closed some sort of chapter in my life now that I've seen the new movie of David Drake's "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," a movie version of his play, which is the longest-running one-man show in the history of New York theater. The movie is a filmed live performance of Drake's amazing one-man show. The film captures the intimacy of a live performance, and somehow enables the same transcendence that is usually only obtained by seeing something performed live and in person. The film takes you on a journey through the issues that face us as gay men, and brings with it the requisite laughs, tears, poignancy, and hope. This piece may have been initially written a decade ago, but the issues still need to be addressed.
The piece has many different sections and voices. "Why I Go To The Gym," which first intrigued me on a long forgotten Network Q tape, still holds true today about body culture in the gay community. "12-inch Single" looks at the world of gay dating and personal ads. "The Vigil" explores the loss due to the AIDS Epidemic, as Drake tells the stories about people he's lost to the disease.
As for the title of the play/movie itself, it refers to Drake seeing "The Normal Heart," and the effect the show had on him, with Kramer's powerful words and call to action giving Drake a virtual kiss that would lead him to ACT UP, Queer Nation, and ultimately, to writing a play that would eventually kiss others in the same way. The movie is now opening up at different theaters and festivals around the country, and should not be missed. For more information about the film, and to find out where it is playing, go to the film's Web site at http://www.kissedme.com/
Drake, now 37, and I recently spoke on the phone about the film, and the path his life took to inform his writing of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Drake saw The Normal Heart in 1985, and everything Kramer predicted in the play, from the epidemic spiraling out of control to government inaction, came true. Drake joined ACT-UP, and in 1990, ended up selling ACT-UP T-shirts beside Kramer.
"It was my big moment, because I revered Larry and his work and contributions, both as a playwright and an activist separately. So, a week later, I just sat down and wrote that particular piece (about seeing The Normal Heart), but I didn't know what it was," Drake said. "I told people I'd written a poem."
At the time, Drake was involved in the turning point of the gay community. He was part of Queer Nation, which held kiss-ins and other queer visibility missions.
"That was a really fun group. To be young, out, and gay in New York, it was all so in your face and fun," he said. "Even when we did a street protest, there was still fun energy because we were making progress. We were getting into this government that denied us entrance, and making progress to ending the epidemic, which is still one of the main goals. Indifference was the problem, action and education was the solution.
"So, I feel very proud to have lived in a time when the community responded. And the best way I knew how to respond was to start writing things for the stage, because I was an entertainer," he said. "I was doing Vampire Lesbians of Sodom Off-Broadway at the time, so I started writing these pieces to address issues that I felt were being focused and heightened by the epidemic, like gay-bashing.
Unlike now, when even the Republican presidential nominees pretend to be concerned about gay people (until they actually cast a vote on something), the Reagan/Bush years were openly homophobic. Drake recalls one example whereby Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a Christian Fundamentalist, told Ronald Reagan there's this epidemic going on that's happening to gay men. Koop said he didn't believe in the gay lifestyle, but said it was the government's job to warn people that this is dangerous, because human life is at stake. Reagan fired him rather than take his advice.
Drake was further inspired by right-wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts for funding queer projects.
"That was also a thorn in my side, 'How dare you tell me that we can't tell our stories?' So, it was another impetus to start writing," he said. "I was intrigued by those performance artists, although I wasn't aware of them at all. I was a legitimate theater, television, and movie actor having a legitimate career and working all the time. But I was inspired by the ideas they were talking about, which were the same things we were talking about in OutWeek, ACT-UP, and Queer Nation."
Drake was also motivated by Christopher Isherwood, "which I've come to see in hindsight as having an impact on my writing," Drake said, "because Christopher is always a character in his own novels. They're sort of autobiography-fiction, so that influenced me, too. He's my favorite gay writer."
The end-result of all of these varying influences was "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." The show opens with a birthday triptych, as Drake traces his coming out through going to see live theater on various birthdays: West Side Story, A Chorus Line, and A Normal Heart. During the Chorus Line segment, Drake relates his coming out to Swim Team Tim, his date for the show.
"Ode to the Village People" explores the question of the significance of queer visibility to gay children. The piece is told through a nine-year-old suburban "sissy child" who is introduced to the Village People through a local hairdresser, and winds up buying their album as a Christmas gift for his mom.
"It was about a wound of my own, a lack of visibility in my life growing up, and the importance of constant visibility, that you could live your life and be gay," he said. "You can live your life out and be happy, be successful, and all of your other dreams can come true with this difference."
"12-Inch Single" looks at the way gay men look for love, using a variety of personal ads as a way to examine how we relate to one another.
"I read it in the personal ads all the time, these mean and cruel things. You're looking for love and you have all these restrictions, and issues, and baggage? Straight-acting, straight-appearing, no fats, no femmes -- all of that stuff," Drake said. "Taste is one thing, fetish is another, but there is some kind of ugliness here in something that's supposed to be very beautiful."
"The Vigil" is the cornerstone of the movie, with Drake lighting candles for the people he's lost to AIDS, and recounting their stories. He said it was the piece that took him the longest to complete.
"The Vigil took me a year to write, and I had to really separate myself. I read this article by Andrew Sullivan in the New Republic called 'Gay Life, Gay Death,' and it was this great article. It talked about the sort-of medieval quality that gay men at that time were going through, that you never knew when somebody was going to disappear and die," he said. "I've had a lot of that in my own life, a relationship with death, from a very early age as a child. From family members, to my mother as a teenager, and all of them were sudden, unexplained deaths to me. I've had very little witnessing to the progression of death. I'm somewhat fortunate that I haven't witnessed a lot of that.
"The goal of that piece is to find spiritual semblance in a time of loss. And that loss can be the epidemic, but many people who haven't had that experience are still moved by the need to come to terms with how they have left their impression upon your soul, and how that has changed you. A natural part of grieving is transference, and that piece really is about transference, about all these gay men I've lost."
Drake describes "The Vigil" as being "about the relationships and people that have informed your past." To that end, Drake has taken his growing up, coming out, acting up, kissing in, and love for life and let it inform "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." This movie documents a watershed moment in the gay community but, like all great pieces of art, never loses its relevance.
The movie also has an amazing sense of hope, which Drake said is missing from a lot of gay art.
"Hope is something in art that, especially gay art, isn't witnessed or seen very often. The idea of a larger harmony or hope," he said. "I mean, you get sex and other things offered (and I offer many of those things in my movie), but I have this thing about hope, and something better ahead of us in our lifetimes and how you can get those. I think I got that energy from my activist work, because I saw the progress."
Before "Kramer" was its own Off-Broadway play, Drake performed many of its pieces at charity fund-raisers for gay organizations.
"I did a lot of benefits. I wanted to use these pieces as a way to help have a social dialogue about the issues, be entertaining, and make money for the organizations that I cared about," he said. "It was my way of being an activist, because I was an entertainer. But eventually it became clear that it was a play. But I never thought it was going to be a movie. I never thought, I want to be a movie star."
Drake is no stranger to appearing on the big screen, though, having performed in Philadelphia, It's Pat, Naked in New York, Longtime Companion, and David Searching. One sense of irony in "Kramer" becoming a movie is that it got made before Kramer's own "The Normal Heart" was able to make it to the screen, which has had many false starts in Hollywood (many due to Barbra Streisand stalling the production, after buying the rights to the play). Drake is upset that he was able to bring his play to film before its inspiration was able to hit the screen.
"I'm sorry that I did, frankly," he said. "I'm glad for my movie to be made, but I don't know what's holding Normal Heart up. It's very unfortunate and sad that it hasn't been done yet."
Drake has been an actor his entire life, from the time he was 10, so he never had a problem growing up finding gay role models.
"I was always around a lot of gay people doing theater. My role models were successful gay men, they were directors, choreographers, who were very out in a flamboyant way, and I loved it," he said. "They were charming, and they had power, talent, and charisma, and they had everything I wanted when I grew up. So, I was fortunate to have openly gay men around who never put the moves on me, they were teachers in a way. I was fortunate that way. I know a lot of young guys who get introduced to gay men through sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I certainly had sex with older men. But the guys I emulated were different."
Drake even recalls his Chorus Line date, Swim Team Timmy, fondly.
"He was hot as shit, so I've been very lucky in that way, to have a peer. We were so fumbly, but fun."
Drake came out early, but didn't let that get in the way of dating a couple of women when he was 18 and 19, after he had already had relationships with men.
"I thought, 'well, maybe?' I don't know what I was looking for," he said. "I told them I was gay, but they still want you to kiss them and touch their breasts and things, and I did all those things. It just wasn't for me."
Drake's family didn't react to his sexuality as well as he had hoped. He was banned from doing theater for a year, because that was the influence, and he had to go to Johns Hopkins University for therapy.
"And my parents were teachers with master's degrees and all that! They're not stupid people," Drake said, "but they were educated in a society that said it was psychologically wrong and it could be fixed. My mother thought she was a failure as a mother. But we got our relationship back on track. The rest of my family all know, but they rarely talk about it. And I'm saddened by that sometimes."
When asked specifically what advice Drake would give the readers of Oasis, since they are the next generation of the gay community, he said one main thing that needs to be addressed is getting along.
"One of the community's big problems is getting along with one another," he said. "Be nice to each other. Find it within yourself to be nice to each other. We've got enough enemies, we don't need to be each other's enemies."