Image, from left to right: Robert LaFosse, Donald C. Shorter, Jr., Rory O’Malley, Chad Ryan, David Drake, Aaron Tone, BD Wong, Wesley Taylor.
By Kevin Sessums
Twenty years ago, David Drake combined his political activism with his theatrical talent and presented his one-man show, “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” which The New York Times called “rivetingly angry, intense, frenetic, frank and touching.” Twenty years on, Drake himself is less angry – or, more precisely, his political anger has matured if not mellowed – and yet he is still intense and frenetic and frank and touching as our conversation the other day attests.
Drake, who won an Obie Award for the original production, has revised and broadened his one-man play for a one-night only benefit on May 20th for both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the Sero Project to include an ensemble of actors, among them B.D. Wong, Andre de Shields, Anthony Rapp, Robin de Jesus and Rory O’Malley.
After a long morning of rehearsals with his new cast and his director, Robert La Fosse, Drake met me in a cafe off New York’s Union Square Park to talk about some of the issues the play still brings up for himself and, I’m certain on Monday night, will as well for different generations of gay men in the audience and onstage.
Kevin Sessums: For people who have never seen this play, tell them how the title came about.
David Drake: The title is a metaphor for the night I saw Larry Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart” and how it awakened me to the consciousness of being a young gay man in New York City in 1985 that reflected what was going on in the outside world. The invisibility. The mounting AIDS crisis happening. I was not alone. Many individuals were having this. Collectively it brought us together into ACT UP a few years later. So my experience was similar to many other gay men of my generation. It’s not about an actual caress.
Sessums: It could have just as easily been “The Night Larry Kramer Dissed Me.” That could be a metaphor for a whole generation also – Larry’s righteous rightful political anger which he has targeted at all kinds of entrenched power.
Drake: You know, I don’t really see Larry that much socially. I try to keep my distance a little bit from Larry because I want to be able to hear him. I didn’t want to become so friendly with him that I would automatically support everything he says or be lulled into some kind of hero worship of him. I needed to be able to hear him critically and carefully.
Sessums: What does Larry think of the show? Has he ever told you? I assume he’s seen it.
Drake: I used to kill him off in the show and he didn’t like that. To show the emotional depth dramatically of losing a comrade like Larry I took some poetic license and put myself in the future – back then the future was 1999 – and I said “Oh, that was the year we lost Mr. Kramer.” Because back then he was open about being HIV positive and we didn’t have drugs. Larry hated that.
“My God! You kill me off in the show, David,” he said. But I told him I was thinking about the time when we lost Martin Luther King, Jr., and the entire nation went into mourning. That was my thought behind it. Larry couldn’t see that though. He could only see his survival at that time. So that’s no longer in the show.
That’s the only thing I ever did for somebody regarding the integrity of my own work. Not at the time. I kept it in for a while during the initial run. But then when I started moving it around and adapting it, I thought … hmmmm … I will take that out for Larry if that makes him uncomfortable because I didn’t want to want to make him uncomfortable.
Sessums: So a personal gesture overrode your artistic impulse. If you were making the decision again solely on artistic grounds, would you have kept it in?
Drake: Yes. I would. Because I wanted to show when you lose a great leader it leaves a huge hole within the community that they lead. I was thinking of Larry in the same vein as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X – other great civil rights leaders. That’s what I was basing it on. Because when we all lose such a leader we are all stunned and have to regather ourselves in order to keep their message alive.
My initial impulse of putting Larry’s name in the title was not about my wanting to get close to a famous gay person. It was about him presenting a message and I then carried that message – which was you have to fight for your freedom, that you yourself are responsible for your freedoms. No one is going to give them to you. You have to take them. And therefore you have to discover them to be able to take them which was why ACT UP was such a hodgepodge of all these “isms” of society.
Sessums: Freedom can be quite a generic term. How do you define it in your own life? Maybe I should rephrase that. Do you, in fact, feel free?
Drake: I do feel pretty free. I have always felt free in some ways. Career-wise I have not felt free. I have felt contained by my identity as a gay man. For me writing this play became a life choice rather than I’m going to write myself this one-man show and become a star. It wasn’t about becoming a star.
But then I had to reconcile what was happening when I became this kind of “It Boy” at a time when nobody was out as an actor. I represented a kind of radical politics to people who were afraid of me. They wanted me around but they didn’t know what to do with me. People often didn’t cast me. Once I went back to being a work-a-day actor I lost a lot of parts to straight guys because I was authentically gay. But, honestly, Kevin, I also gave some bad auditions. I wasn’t as prepared at 29-years-old as I am clearly today.
Sessums: How old are you now?
Drake: I’m 49.
Sessums: You’re chicken to me, honey.
Drake: God bless you.
Sessums: I call those “9” years the circling O’Hare years. You’re just circling waiting to land at the next age with a zero at the end of it – 30, 40, 50, 60 …
Drake: I know. What’s going to happen next month when I turn 50?
Sessums: Don’t worry. I saved you a seat.
Drake: Back in my 20s when I first did this show and had all this energy around me, people didn’t know what to do with me. This was way before Ellen came out. Or even Dan Butler. Plus, I was associated with AIDS politics which were considered radical politics. Back then people wanted gays to be good and to be funny. And that’s it. Back in the early 1990s they wanted straight people – or seemingly straight people – to play those gay parts in order to ease the mass culture along and to some extent gay people supported that too.
Sessums: A lot of the gay power structure of show business – directors, agents, casting directors, producers – seem to prefer to hire straight actors instead of out gay ones. Where does that come from? That they don’t want to rock the boat too much and chance losing their own power by expressing solidarity too openly which could be mistaken for a political statement itself instead of an artistic one?
Drake: No. I think it comes from a deeper personal place that we collectively share as gay men. We want to see the fantasy version of ourselves. And also straight men are, consistently through history, erotic objects of affection for gay men so it is a fantasy come true if you can hire someone and give them a check – kind of gay-for-pay – and they will do the kind of things you would like them to do even if it is just voyeuristically. We collectively like that as gay men. And for straight people it becomes, “Oh, look how great he is. Now THAT’S acting.”
Sessums: It also becomes a way to wield power over straight men by hiring them and directing them. And, let’s face it, there is an erotic charge to be felt in the intimacy of the shared creative process.
Drake: Absolutely. I know when I direct plays I fall a little bit in love with everybody in my casts in different ways.
Sessums: When you first wrote and performed “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” did you see it first and foremost as a theatrical piece or a form of agitprop?
Drake: I did see it as agitprop at first. It was my tool to save the world.
Sessums: Could you have created this play without being in ACT UP?
Drake: No. It couldn’t have happened. ACT UP gave me the courage and audacity to write the things I would have never written before.
Sessums: Did Lily Tomlin’s one-woman show of Jane Wagner’s “Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” influence you? Your play followed theirs the next year. Ironically, though they are lesbians and longtime partners, I don’t think they were out back then but I can still see their influence in your work.
Drake: Yes. What Lily’s “Search for Intelligent Life …” showed me was the power of an individual onstage. But also she showed me how you could speak to an audience through all these disparate characters and voices and yet show at the same time how we’re all connected.
The first record I ever bought in my life was Lily Tomlin’s “This is a Recording” when I was nine years old. I thought all her characters were funny but there was also some kind of authentic queer buried inside of her that was speaking to me even then. But in “Search for Intelligent Life ..” I also responded to the feminism that was embedded in that play.
Sessums: Do you think the fight for LGBT rights has surpassed the fight for women’s right in the cultural consciousness at this moment in history?
Drake: That’s hard to answer. In the speed of it? Yes. Considering the obstacle of AIDS, particularly so. And institutionally, we had the psychiatric profession we had to win over. There was a brick wall in the culture that separated us. But the political battles we fought because of HIV/AIDS allowed all these other battles to be fought. All these kids today got their walking feet through that. We, in our generation, got our walking feet though all those old 1960s hippies.
Sessums: The HIV/AIDS movement is no longer really, alas, a movement. Even your evening on Monday ironically points that out. HIV/AIDS is now all about charity and fodder for a kind of nostalgic theatrical event. A kind of nostalgia has attached itself to HIV/AIDS in America. LGBT activism today is defined by the fight for marriage equality.
Drake: Mostly that’s because the stakes got lower when the drugs got introduced and they began to save lives.
Sessums: They are elongating lives. Is that saving them? Maybe. But there is no cure. Are you surprised that the focus of LGBT activism today is on the right to marry?
Drake: No. I’m not surprised. I think marriage equality as a movement is sensational. I love what young people are doing with this. It’s sort of inevitable. There are all kinds of ways to argue about what the original gay rights movement was about.
But if you look at it collectively from the buttoned-up Mattachine Society to the hippie drag queen kids who threw bottles at Stonewall and you put them all together I think they could all come to the conclusion that, yeah, marriage should be an option for us because what’s at the core of this? “Oh, my full citizenship,” some would answer. Yes, there’s that.
But what is at the even deeper core? “My romantic heart,” is my answer. It’s all about who you love. At its core, the gay rights movement is the most romantic revolution of all time.
Sessums: I’m a 57-year-old man. But when I came out as a fifteen-year-old back in 1972 in Mississippi, having sex with another man was a political act to me in lot of ways. It certainly felt that way within the conservative culture in which I grew up.
Drake: The desire is romantic. But the act is political. I believe that too. I do. I do.
Sessums: “I do. I do.” That’s a rather appropriate response in this discussion about marriage equality. Or even theatre. Weren’t Mary Martin and Robert Preston in a musical called “I Do! I Do!”? You should do a gay version of it. Would you play the Mary Martin or Robert Preston role?
Drake: I once did see a kind of gay version of it. I saw Lucie Arnaz and her husband Laurence Luckinbill in a production of it on tour. It would be fun to do “I Do! I Do!” with two men now that marriage equality is happening. Who would I do it with? Hmm. I wouldn’t want the heavy singing chores – that big baritone part.
Sessums: Well, that leaves you with the Mary Martin role. There is a kind of Mary Martin quality to you, David, now that you mention it.
Drake: Yes. I do have a sunny quality like Mary.
Sessums: You also kind of remind me of Ruth Draper if she had draped herself over an orchestra seat at Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and absorbed it all.
Drake: I wasn’t aware of Ruth Draper until after I started doing solo work though I do adore Ruth Draper.
Sessums: Does it thrill you that you are doing this anniversary performance of “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” and it is still pertinent or does it sadden you in some way?
Drake: It’s been very emotional stepping back into the material. There is a sense of loss because so many of the individuals who inspired some of the characters are now gone.
Sessums: It’s going to be very emotional for lots of us on Monday night for lots of reasons.
Drake: Yes. It will be. It’s going to be a special night.