Faggot With a Gun
I Was a Teenage Judy Garland Fan
at the Heartland Studio Theater
In recent years the quantity of semiautobiographical coming-out/coming-of-age stories on Chicago stages has rivaled the number of stars in the Milky Way. If you've seen even a quarter of them, you may be convinced that gay men talk about little but themselves--their confused upbringings, their intolerant families, their adolescent sexual escapades, and their ultimate discovery of gay pride. And when it comes to solo gay performers, the autobiographical impulse seems even stronger, as inexorable as a black hole.
It's curious that so many gay monologuists use coming out as a metaphor for claiming their individuality, yet tell pretty much the same story. Mark Davis in Faggot With a Gun and Anthony Whitaker in I Was a Teenage Judy Garland Fan typify this trend--although both also avoid predictability in promising, satisfying ways. Each fights against a repressive, conservative upbringing in a small town, imagining himself to be the only gay kid on the planet. Each tastes boyhood love at 14--Davis with a young hustler, Whitaker with a farm-boy neighbor who shows him, among other things, "how to make a Miss Universe crown out of just a little bit of glitter and a turned-up sun visor." Each recounts the thrill of going to a gay bar for the first time, of inheriting a community. Each moves to a liberal urban center where his identity as a gay man matures. And each ultimately expresses gay pride through subversive outrageousness; Davis plays the outlaw, waging guerrilla war against archconservatives and Christian fundamentalists, while Whitaker plays the rebel priest, worshiping Judy Garland in a new Eucharist of Blue Nun, Seconal, and Lorna Doones. We've heard these entertaining but unsurprising stories in a hundred different permutations; they're half archetype and half formula.
Central to both pieces is the perception of an America with zero tolerance for gay men, with rabidly homophobic bullies in every school hall, radio studio, and church pulpit (for Whitaker, a backwoods southern mentality often substitutes for homophobia). Finding gay pride in this world is as much about recognizing enemies as accepting the self. The exaggerations are grand and self-conscious--both men camp it up with abandon, creating almost childlike emotional extremes. The few tolerant straight people in these stories vanish without leaving an impression, while numerous hate-filled monsters loom gargantuan. It's the psychology of trauma, indicative of a community besieged by politicians and pundits every bit as vicious as a certain unstoppable retrovirus.
Davis, a stand-up comic best known for his appearances on Comedy Central's Out There showcases, is a commanding presence onstage, with an electrifying personality, an unfailingly precise physicality, and razor-sharp timing. Even when he drags his audience through familiar, not to say exhausted material, he rarely fails to entertain. In his more inspired bits he's visited by the spirit of TV's Emma Peel, becoming the tough-talking, gun-toting Queer Avenger, trying to track down the mysterious villain who's kidnapped all of America's gay icons (Harvey Fierstein, Martina Navratilova, Rita Mae Brown, et al). Though the evening seems too long, as Davis struggles to keep a half dozen tangential story lines going, his wit rarely fails. Confronting a would-be attacker, for example, Davis disarms his assailant by saying, "Have you ever been hypnotized by a queen? You are tired."
Unmistakably talented, Davis seems smarter than his own material. Despite a creative imagination--his final showdown with evil kidnappers makes The Terminator look like a Boy Scout training film--he often aims at easy targets. It doesn't take much to deflate homophobes, especially in a theater with a predominantly gay and gay-friendly audience--the only people likely to see a show with "faggot" in the title. Davis adopts an iconoclastic persona, but he spends much of his time preaching to the choir.
About three-quarters of the way through, however, he shifts gears, taking aim at the gay community rather than defending it--and showing what a genuine iconoclast he can be. He says he refuses to wear a red ribbon, the enforced gesture of solidarity in the AIDS community, because "I won't trivialize my grief with an accessory." After describing "gay day" at Disneyland, where he watched a long line of moneyed gay men "trying to buy their civil rights with a MasterCard," he asks the decidedly middle-class audience in the evening's most impassioned moment, "Don't you see that the American dream is just as poisonous to us as it is to straight people?" Here is a truly urgent gay voice, challenging rather than flattering his audience, questioning the belief that every problem in the gay community comes from without. By the end of Faggot With a Gun Davis shows just how insightful and courageous an artist he can be.
Whitaker lacks Davis's sophistication and polish as a performer, and unfortunately his stories more often than not are awkwardly interspersed with embarrassingly overwrought renditions of folk-rock songs. Whitaker's genius lies instead in crafting mesmerizing scenes of southern inhospitality so creepy they'd make Carson McCullers jealous. Walking through the Georgia state fair, for example, he stumbles upon an all-black "hootchy-kootchy show," featuring Lady Godiva Chocolate and Nefertitty. Then, out of the blue, almost as if in passing, he says, "I'll never know how they got all those babies in the jars of colored water."
Like Davis, Whitaker succeeds when he swerves from the queer and narrow. As a chronicler of gay southern gothic, he's a unique, refreshing voice. But as a dishy theater queen infatuated with Judy Garland, he's no different than half the guys at Sidetracks on show-tunes night.
Also like Davis, Whitaker spends a fair amount of time mining 60s and 70s pop culture. Together the two of them refer to Jordache jeans, Faberge, Hot Wheels, Gilligan's Island, One Day at a Time, Lost in Space, The Avengers, Julia, Linda Blair, Anita Ward, Sonny and Cher, mopeds, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Abba, the AMC Pacer, and Hollywood Squares. Like so many contemporary artists reinvestigating the legacy of the 70s, Davis and Whitaker revel in the era's delicious tastelessness--a strategy at once liberating (it's OK to admit we love trailer parks) and classist (because we know how trashy they really are and we wouldn't be caught dead living there). But if the search for a meaningful gay legacy is what lies behind this cultural archaeology, the unwillingness to look beyond pop culture--largely disposable and merely profit-generating--makes that quest seem spurious. When it comes to gay history it seems that gay artists know what to satirize, eulogize, parody, ridicule, disparage, debunk, and wax nostalgic over. But we don't yet know what to treasure.