When we use the word "heritage" we are likely often referring to an individual's or a group's ethnic or cultural lineage and traditions, or else to the shared history--including built--of a community or nation. So what might it mean to think of sexuality as having a heritage? How would one conceive of mapping a specifically "gay heritage" given that modern notions of sexual identity are belated historical constructs that simultaneously subsume and marginalize an entire spectrum of non-Western same-sex amatory and kinship relations, let alone some of the very real divisions that persist in the LGBTQ rainbow coalition in countries like Canada? And, even more pertinently, how would you turn these questions into a work of performance that sought to provoke critical thought and reflection even as it remained committed to entertaining its diverse audience? These are just some of the questions behind The Gay Heritage Project, a work of devised theatre created and performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir. It premiered to acclaim last year at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto and has now arrived in Vancouver for a two-week run at The Cultch's Historic Theatre.
Thirty years ago, in the climactic scene of the off-Broadway premiere of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, the firebrand protagonist Ned Weeks delivered the following speech: "I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold." Several of these same figures turn up in The Gay Heritage Project, either named and voiced directly in some of the work's historical set pieces, or referred to in passing via a montage of images on screen or a medley of song (the work's multiple choral arrangements were overseen by Kushnir, who has a beautiful voice). However, GHP's creators, all able-bodied, white middle-class urban gay men in their thirties, are neither so presumptuous as to think that there is an unbroken line of connection between their contemporary "post-AIDS," post-same-sex marriage millennial queer identities and the forebears cited by Kramer, nor unaware of the other differences--not least with respect to gender--masked within such a totalizing genealogy.
On the former front, the performers do their best, over the course of the show, to become good Foucauldians, accepting that homosexuality as we have come to know it is a social construction invented in the nineteenth century even as they rail against the jargon of queer theory and its mute opacity in the face of one's contradictory response to the boy-love of a Socrates or a da Vinci or a Marlowe. This particular line of inquiry culminates in a brilliant scene in which Atkins at once spoofs and pays loving homage to that classic icon of gay heritage, The Wizard of Oz. Foucault himself is inserted into the role of the Wizard, and while on the one hand he tells all the friends of Dorothy that we can never find a fixed and stable home in homo, he also says the flip side of this is that we can choose with whom we wish to queerly affiliate ourselves (in these and similar scenes I detected the hand of my Dublin-based academic colleague, J. Paul Halferty, who served as dramaturge for the show).
Anxieties around the parameters and limits of queer affiliation are also front and centre in the many scenes in which the creators stage various debates about whom they are speaking for in the piece, as well as those voices they are necessarily leaving out. Dunn visits an imaginary queer archive to get a storytelling license for the show, only to be shown what a very narrow remit said license would cover. At the same time, Kushnir introduces us, via a Reading Rainbow sequence, to a succession of non-Western stories of same-sex relationships. And Atkins takes a bus ride in which he discovers just how fraught and tenuous are the lines of connection between different members of the queer community.
It struck me that after the third or fourth of such scenes the GHP boys were being a bit too defensive regarding anticipated critiques of the show's premise. Much more successful for me was the balance struck by each of the creator-performers' micro and macro focus on the meaning of "gay heritage." By that I mean that the effort at synthesizing transculturally and transhistorically an archive of queerness finds its narrative corollary not just in the more specific focus on Canadian issues and landmarks, but in each of the performers' attempts to reconcile their sexuality with their own family histories and disaporas. Gay heritage, we discover, includes Atkins' boyhood fascination with the figure skating of Brian Orser, Kushnir's adult quest to discover what it means to be a gay Ukrainian, and Dunn's cross-generational channeling of an Irish love song between two men. Equally, we are reminded that gay heritage means not being complacent in submitting without question to a progressivist narrative of history that might seek to overwrite that which doesn't fit within its ameliorative ethos or about which we might feel uneasy or ashamed. Such questions are brought out most powerfully in: an alley encounter between "gay identity" and "gay desire" enacted by Kushnir; an "It Gets Worse" sequence featuring Dunn as the Roman emperor Tiberius; and a victim impact statement made by Atkins during the murder trial of HIV, in which he elaborates on what he, as a gay man born into the era of anti-retrovirals who has never known someone who has died of AIDS, has nevertheless lost as a result of the disease.
A work brimming with both intellect and unabashed sentiment, and featuring three charismatic performers engaged in a non-stop dialogue with each other, with their imagined interlocutors, and with us, The Gay Heritage Project is a production that excites and educates.