One of the more amazing things about being a professor is getting an occasional glimpse of the world to come, the world that will be made by my students. Granted, sometimes I get a little apocalyptic (and apoplectic) when I think that this could be a world without the Oxford comma, proper use of the objective case, and actual books, but that's usually a sign that I need to stop grading papers and walk the dog. Sometimes, however, I experience that other sense of the term apocalypse, an unveiling. In those moments, the stars begin to fall, the planets seem to realign, and what was formerly impossible pulls up a chair, smiles, and says "guess what? That just happened." Last night, that happened. A young man named Ethan, whom I am fortunate to call my student, directed and starred in Bare: A Pop Opera, a production that is also his honors project. Written in 1999, Bare unfolds in a Catholic boarding school, where two boys have fallen in love and carry on a clandestine romance until one, Peter, decides he is no longer willing to live in the closet. The other, Jason, the school's golden boy, scared and confused, refuses to embrace their love in public and the consequences are tragic. Jason has a fling with the sexy but insecure Ivy that results in a pregnancy. Then, he ODs during a school production of Romeo and Juliet, another play about forbidden love and hidden lives that animates this one. This summary doesn't do justice to Ethan's production, but it's a sketch of what unfolded in song, American sign language, and the 15 heart-out, passionate, Katy-bar-the-door performances that simultaneously gave the play its sense of urgency and, paradoxically, marked it as a play set in the past. Faulkner once observed that the past is never dead; it's never even the past. I've always thought that insight needs the ballast of Tony Kushner's prophetic assertion that the world only spins forward. Both halves of this equation are true; without Faulkner's insight, we would be blind to the histories shape us, and without Kushner's, how would we keep going? Faulkner reminds us to honor the parts of the past that are honorable; Kushner reminds us that it's OK to ask for more.
Last night, the stars began to fall, at least in my neck of the woods. The past met the present and shook hands with the future. Let me explain. Just before the play, I was celebrating the news that a dear friend had been accepted to seminary and was in line for a substantial scholarship. Toasts would be in order under any circumstances, but this friend is gay, out, and seeking ordination in a mainline Protestant (OK, since you asked, Lutheran) tradition. Earlier that day, the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases from 4 states in the 6th Circuit, including cases from Tennessee, which will likely lead to the legal clarification of the right to marriage equality on a national scale. That means that by April of 2015, the court should hear the cases, and the issue should be resolved in June. Of this year. So as I sprang up from dinner's joyous conversation to make it to Ethan's play, the sense of moment, of history lurching forward, electrified me. During the passionate talkback after Bare, I sat next to Carol Mayo-Jenkins, whom I am honored and continually flabbergasted to call my colleague. Carol played Sherwood, the sharp, caring, dulcet-toned English teacher on Fame, and she's in my personal pantheon of real and imaginary teachers who made me want to do what I do. I pinch myself whenever I stop to think about the fact that we inhabit the same office building and dote on the same students. Together, we listened to these young actors talk about why this show mattered so much to them, how close their own stories were to their characters', how they struggled to believe that they could be loved by God when their churches rejected them, how many of their parents refused to come to the show, how intertwined we are in the past, and how we can taste the future.
My own high school years in the early 80s were days in which, even in a relatively artsy high school, people weren't "out." It was a far cry from the 50s, which kept the likes of Rock Hudson in the closet, but it was still a world before Gay-Straight Alliances, PFLAG, and trans awareness. What we had in that post-Stonewall, pre-ACT UP moment were the arts, and shows on TV like Fame, which let us dream about moving to New York, attending a school for the arts, living, dancing, singing, and writing with fiery passion. It gave us (all of us--kids who were gay, straight, who knows yet?) a glimpse into a world that looked more tolerant, more creative, and more open-minded than the one we inhabited, one in which we might be loved and appreciated for our freaky gifts and quirks. Fame did, in reality, lead to the creation of hundreds of schools for the arts across the country. Oscar Wilde got his revenge: more often than we realize, life imitates art. My mundane south Florida public high school, an architectural wasteland further scarred by portable classrooms, overcrowding, and double sessions, had none of the charm of the 46th St. High School for the Performing Arts, but at least we had a chorus room and a tiny drama program to bring together the odd ducks, smart kids, and performative types. That last group included several boys who knew or came to realize later that they were gay. And I loved them--great prom dates, fantastic singers, hilarious, affectionate, classy, but, alas for me, not straight. Some made it through, and some we lost in the 90s to the scourge of AIDS. In the middle of those in-between times, though, in 1983 (and thereabouts), we had chorus, The Music Man, and our shared passion for making the most beautiful and meaningful disposable art we could, being as honest and brave as we could, and knowing something more about ourselves and each other as a result.
For many of the kids I knew, the arts were what saved them. And that's likely to remain true, even if the Supreme Court affirms the right to marry that 36 states now recognize. Bare was about the urgent need for the arts and especially for theatre as a space of imagining what we can't yet fully realize, for encountering ideas and issues with an audience that otherwise might not be willing or able to have that conversation, and for glorying in the painful, beautiful, complicated process of being and loving in this imperfect world. These kids were leaning in to their own futures, and sitting next to one of my childhood idols who mapped out territory that helped give my friends hope, territory I would later claim as my own when I decided to teach, I knew that their work mattered. Bless them for it. As sister Chantelle sings in the show, God don't make no trash. Sing loud, lead on, and don't ever apologize for who you are. Non-judgment day is coming.