When I worked at the New Conservatory Theater Center before joining The Chronicle, management had a very clear rebranding directive: no more naked guys.
The change was hardly the result of a sudden fit of prudishness. The LGBTQ theater on Van Ness Avenue hoped to outgrow its former reputation as the “Nude” Conservatory Theater Center, where audiences could reliably ogle naked young guys on stage.
Depending on your level of maturity, this idea may make you cringe or snicker. But I didn’t discover founder Ed Decker’s thoughtful justification for that bygone era until near the end of my tenure.
“Our sexuality and our sex have become associated with death and dying,” he told me. It was important to him to use the theater he founded in 1982 to create a fuller, more ennobling, and more vivid way of looking at gay and queer men; their sexuality was not and could not be totally locked into the HIV/AIDS crisis.
This backdrop makes the company’s upcoming world premiere “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute,” from Friday, April 1 through May 8, all the more remarkable.
Yilong Liu’s screenplay is about an intergenerational couple in an open relationship. Bryant (Matt Weimer) lived through the depths of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and still mourns a lost love, Jared (Troy Rockett). Erik (James Aaron Oh), for whom those days are a thing of the past, has just started taking PrEP, the drug approved by the FDA in 2012 to prevent HIV infection.
For Bryant, Erik’s sex life seems impossibly easy, to the point of recklessness, callousness, and ingratitude toward previous generations whose suffering essentially made his life possible. For Erik, an immigrant from far more repressive China, the point of making medical advances and gaining new rights and freedoms is to enjoy them. What is he supposed to do, live in the past?
The ingenuity of Liu’s storyline is that living in the past becomes possible, thanks to PrEP itself. Her actual symptoms include vivid dreams, here portrayed by actor Akaina Ghosh. Taking her, into the game world, gives the patient the power to time travel.
Liu, who is 31 and lives in New York after emigrating from Chongqing, China, says he got the idea for the play partly out of his own interest in queer history, which for him was tied to learning English, and partly of his dreams. . Growing up and reading about an HIV/AIDS crisis in another time and place, “I felt like there was this lineage or this legacy that was breathing and bleeding inside of me,” he declared.
Before starting to take PrEP in 2015, “queer intimacy had been associated with shame, guilt, fear and anxiety,” he said. The drugs set him free, but he also began to fear that his use would cause him to forget the story that he had been part of his identity.
The play, and to some extent NCTC’s own journey as a company, is about remembering and grieving. What obligations do we owe in the present to a tragic past? When is it right to put on a cathartic mourning piece? And when a festive, resolutely sexual?
Part of what makes Bryant such a theatrically mature character is that while he knows he needs something else from Erik, he can’t fully express what it is. If an acknowledgment of what Bryant lost isn’t enough, but that Erik changed his whole life is too much, where is the middle way?
Erik tries to find out via time travel. Most of us aren’t so lucky, so I wondered how the producer and creative team would answer that question themselves.
“The responsibility of all generations – old, young and everyone in between – is that we have to remember that we all have something to offer the conversation,” said Decker, who said he lost his entire group. peers in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. If the young have fire in their bellies, he says, the old can show them how to avoid reinventing the wheel. What drew him to the room? “Past and present were trying to make peace with each other and grow together.
Grow together. It sounded like a wonderful answer, a goal we can all aim for in our own intergenerational relationships and heartaches.
Another came from the show’s 28-year-old director, Stanford doctoral student Adin Walker, as he set the play in a tradition of queer fantasy dramas that bend gravity and blur the boundaries of space, time and reality. (His screenplay makes a meta-joke about his debt to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”)
“In stretching out what we think are these boundaries in our lives, we start thinking about what other structures in our lives we want to change or reimagine,” Walker said. “WWe begin to envision a different way of getting around the world and a different world that we aspire to be in.
Remembering the past by imagining something new. Liu, Walker and the NCTC team are heading towards this lofty ideal by mounting this promising scenario. May we non-artists have our own less experienced imaginations ignited by the testimony.
“PrEP Game, or Blue Parachute”: Written by Yilong Liu. Directed by Adin Walker. Previews begin Friday, April 1. Until May 8. $25 to $65. New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness Ave, Lower Lobby, SF 415-861-8972. www.nctcsf.org