For some people, every day is a fight. By this, I don’t mean that they are belligerent: Rather, their lives include behavior and other identifiers that by nature place them on the front lines of ongoing cultural, political, economic, and spiritual wars that, like the trench warfare of World War I, are fought in the muck and the blood. The people I’m talking about do not welcome the fight, but neither will they shy away. These are the people who often feel most alone in life, but who – usually after their death – are lionized and have their struggles turned into legend. In Blade to the Heat, a play I wrote over 20 years ago, and now in my newest play, Members Only, opening tonight, the character of Pedro “Pete” Quinn stands out as such a lonely warrior. His fight comes to him every day, rain or shine, and it involves the conflict between his sexual identity and his identity as a professional world boxing champion – a sport that, more than any other, fears anything outside heterosexual and cisgender categories.
I wrote Blade to the Heat in the early 1990s, at a moment when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, and when the topic of gays in the military led to “don’t ask, don’t tell” as official U.S. policy. Although I made a point to set the play more than a generation before, in 1959, many people read it as an AIDS play – and they weren’t far from wrong. Playwrights set plays in the past in order to try to understand the present. When they are any good, plays are prisms that take the light of the present moment and bounce it in unexpected directions and a spectrum of colors. The cruelty and ignorance of 1959 America that hounded and outed the young boxer Pedro Quinn, and that led him to kill his opponent (and idol) in the ring were still there in the 1990s – and it’s still here now in 2018.
The story isn’t over. Members Only brings Quinn forward to 1982. It’s been 22 years since we last saw him and the other surviving characters of Blade. Although he is still not out, Quinn doesn’t hide his gayness to the degree that he did before. Meanwhile, the world around him is exploring nonbinary identities – this was, after all, the time of unisex fashion! Men and women of color were coming out in 1982 through their music and style. Despite Reagan and the Moral Majority, Americans were opening their hearts and minds to difference and change. Despite the very real fights at hand, it was a time of hope and potential, not unlike our own moment. But we remember 1982 for more than E.T. or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. This was the year the mysterious and deadly gay disease sweeping the nation and the world was officially named AIDS. It changed everything, then and now.
I wrote Members Only not only to connect the dots of our American history, but to build on the legend of lonely warriors like Pedro Quinn: A quiet man who cannot help but find himself not only at the center of the war on sexual and racial identity, but also on the front lines of a global scourge that took our best and brightest from us without regard. Quinn is still a champion boxer, born and bred to share sweat and blood with his opponent; he is still Mexican-American (with an accent on the hyphen), and he is still living an active gay lifestyle on the down low. In other words, Quinn (then as now) is one of those lonely warriors who has to fight every day. But at least in this play, others look up to the way he quietly leads by example. As alone as he may feel, the only way for him to survive this crucible is through compassion, connecting those he loves – and even those he hates – through the spirit.
This is a play that brings us back to 1982 in order to better understand 2018, not as much through data or logic as through the spirit within us that keeps the fight alive. Back then, we had to fight a disease without a name and an American governing system that seems laughably sexist and racist to us now. But it was no laughing matter. It was a kind of necessary fight, and it had to be won for us to live free.
Members Only is more than jacket from the 1980s or a velvet rope to keep some out of an exclusive club. It is a prism that will hopefully bounce the light of our own precarious present into an unexpected spectrum of rainbow colors and connect those of us who struggle today with those who struggled in the past to lighten our load.
Oliver Mayer’s Members Only plays from tonight through November18 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 512 S. Spring St. Buy tickets online at TheLATC.org or call (866) 811-4111.