When he was 12, Edward Thomas-Herrera started having visions.
He was lying in bed one night, listening to his father working in an adjoining office, when he saw the site of the ascension flashed across his bedroom ceiling, as vivid as a Technicolor movie. "I didn't know that it was the Mount of Olives right away," he says, "but I thought it looked very Middle Eastern because it was so sunny." In an instant the image vanished.
Not long thereafter he saw a cross of light in his darkened bedroom. "And then one time I was in my room--I think I was praying or something--and I saw the face of Jesus, like a black-and-white photograph, wearing the crown of thorns and crying. Well, you know, it did look kind of painful.
"These were not dreams," he insists. "Maybe they were the beginning stages of schizophrenia, I don't know, but I saw these things."
It seems a little shocking to hear such serious musings from the normally mischievous Thomas-Herrera. These days he's a performance poet with a quick, caustic tongue and a glamorously lowbrow persona, the spiritual love child of Dorothy Parker and Bette Midler. Despite his facility with language, he's at a bit of a loss when it comes to explaining his prepubescent visions, though a strict Catholic upbringing by a devout Salvadoran mother surely primed the pump. Spending hours poring over The Lives of the Saints didn't hurt either.
"The obvious answer is that I was going through a lot of stress," he says with a laugh. "But the idea that stress started to make me see things scares me, so I avoid that explanation and pretend they were religious experiences."
Thomas-Herrera's stress came from a realization that he might be gay. Unlike his rough-and-tumble brothers, he was "really interested in reading and writing and ballet and watching PBS. So when I didn't have the attraction to little girls that I was told would soon be expected of me, I thought it was a sign of insanity." Not to mention a sin. "I thought I was going to hell. Which is probably why I became so religious. I figured that the answer to my little problem of damnation was to enter the priesthood."
Instead, he entered therapy. For eight years he moved from doctor to doctor, searching for satisfaction. "From age 15 to 23, "Boy meets therapist, boy loses therapist, boy gets even more depressed' became a very familiar cycle." He also started pouring out his soul in poetry, most of it "very long and very bad." When he showed the tortured scrawl to his therapist, he got stronger medication and a recommendation to hospitalize himself. When he showed the same poems to his high school English teacher, he got an A.
"Poetry was something I had always been in love with," he says. "But after it almost landed me in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, I didn't feel like it was a healthy venue of expression." He stopped writing completely before he left high school.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in music from Rice University, he came to Chicago in 1989 to pursue an MFA in directing at DePaul. One year short of graduation he had to leave the program, but, Thomas-Herrera says, his time in school was not happy. He was "openly gay, and unrepentant about it. There were other gay students, but perhaps the sheer volume I put out made me a "difficult' student."
Thomas-Herrera met his destiny a few months after leaving DePaul when writer and performer David Kodeski started hitting on him at Live Bait Theater's Christmas party. Kodeski not only became Thomas-Herrera's lover but introduced him to the Green Mill and the world of performance poetry. "It was a new form that hadn't been beaten out of me the way that drama had been," he says.
Within a year he mounted his first one-man show, Tango Edwardo, which opened at Live Bait in 1992. He describes that show as "a collection of performance poems put together with just a thin little through line. It had nothing to do with tango--well, there was one piece called Tango. I just liked the title."
His next show, Color Me Edwardo--"essentially Tango Edwardo with a new title"--opened at Zebra Crossing Theatre in 1994. He thought about calling the piece Boffo Edwardo or Gonzo Edwardo, but Color Me Edwardo was "just too perfect." He admits that he decides on names for his pieces long before he has any idea what they will be about. Possible future projects include Dante's Edwardo, They Call the Wind Edwardo, I'm in the Mood for Edwardo, Edwardo With a Z, Les Liaisons Edwardeuses, With Six You Get Edwardo.
In his newest piece, Mondo Edwardo, Thomas-Herrera's having fantastic visions all over again. He imagines himself conquering the world, "globe-trotting my own special variation on a theme by Jacqueline Susann . . . a free Isadora Duncan spirit riding shotgun on a Bugatti." He meets Isak Dinesen in sub-Saharan Africa at "Chez Baroness Blixen . . . an island of extended pinkies in a sea of elbows on the table." Next he jets off to Chile "accompanied by south-of-the-border creme de la hoi polloi" where a "hunky side of Latin beef" ski instructor falls head over heels for him. Then on to Paris, city of "too many citoyens farting around like their merde don't stink," where he receives the first Nobel Prize for fashion modeling. Thomas-Herrera tried his best to work his coming-out story into the show, a near requirement for any gay monologuist it seems, but confesses that "the facts of my life don't tell a particularly interesting story."
He may refer to himself these days as a "committed agnostic," but a religious fervor--not to mention ecstasy--is everywhere apparent in his art, which is just as he would have it. "As I grow older I'm able to get more out of writing than I ever got out of my religion--or at least more comfort. There isn't that threat of eternal damnation. Art is more user friendly."
Free previews of Mondo Edwardo are offered at 8 PM this Tuesday and Wednesday at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark. The show opens at 8 PM Thursday, August 8, and runs at 8 PM Thursdays through Saturdays and 7 PM Sundays through September 15. Tickets cost $8 to $12; call 871-1212 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Edward Thomas-Herrera by Katrina Witkamp.