Edward Thomas-Herrera's mother battled cancer three times before being diagnosed with an inoperable pancreatic strain in late 2000. "She was already in her 70s by that point, and this was going to most likely kill her," says Thomas-Herrera. "The thing we didn't know was how long she was going to make it--how long she was going to suffer."
She held on for 18 months. Thomas-Herrera, who's 40, started writing about her death while she was still alive as a way to cope. Raised Roman Catholic, he'd come out when he was 21 and stopped going to church two years later. "I found myself with no road map for how to process it. So I started writing it all out."
A performer and writer best known for his witty one-man shows built around a jet-setting gay dilettante named Edwardo,Thomas-Herrera juggled trips to Houston to see her with his day job as the business manager at a Chicago architectural firm. In the same time period he wrote and staged Death on a Pink Carpet, a well-received play about the relationship between Lana Turner, her mobster boyfriend, and Turner's daughter, who stabbed the boyfriend in their Hollywood home in 1958. It premiered at Live Bait Theater in February 2002, just four months before his mother died. But the other pieces he was writing--including one he later abandoned called "Afterlife"--were going nowhere.
"It was a long, protracted illness, so there was a lot of time for me to step back and examine the experience of watching her die," says Thomas-Herrera. "But when it finally hit, I started getting this constipation--'Oh my God, I don't have anything more to write about.' I almost tried not writing about it and just moving on. Part of it was that it was still too recent--I couldn't think about it without getting really upset."
The ideas didn't start flowing again until last summer, when Live Bait artistic director Sharon Evans contacted him about doing something for this year's Fillet of Solo Festival. The resulting 65-minute monologue, Fun While It Lasted: A Farewell Tour, examines the writer's relationship with his mother, a vivacious woman with a wicked sense of humor who was born in El Salvador and, he says, "blossomed" after retiring from her job at a Houston department store.
Alternately mournful and funny, the piece touches on his parents' mixed marriage--his father was a fourth-generation Anglo Texan whose mother referred to her son's wife as a "Mexican"--and revisits the experience of confronting an uncle's homophobia. His mother had told Thomas-Herrera she considered his longtime partner, performer David Kodeski, her fourth son. "When she said that to me it was a huge step," he says. "It took her 12 years of me being out of the closet, but it happened."
He also describes his shock after learning at the funeral that his mother used to write a Dear Abby-type column back in the 50s in San Salvador. "All the years I was writing poetry and theater and doing solo shows in Chicago and exploring my own voice as a writer, she never mentioned it to me once," he says now.
"I've never really written about my relationship to my family in such detail, revealing the kind of background I came from," says Thomas-Herrera, whose Edwardo character is now retired. "I make fun of myself an awful lot and was always playing for comedy before. This is not strictly comedy--it's much more heartfelt and emotional and at times very uncomfortable and almost embarrassing to talk about. I've never really pushed myself to do that kind of thing before."
Thomas-Herrera thinks his mother would like the show. "She loved saying shocking things to get people's attention and being the life of the party. She'd love anything that made her the center of attention for an hour."
Fun While It Lasted: A Farewell Tour runs Friday and Saturday, August 6 and 7, at 7:30 PM and August 13 and 14 at 9 PM at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. Tickets are $10; admission to a preview performance at 7:30 on Thursday, August 5, is "pay what you can." Call 773-871-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.