There is nothing overtly queer about Every Brilliant Thing, a one-man show starring Jonny Donahoe and written by Duncan Macmillan. Donahoe is straight, white, and British. His struggles, for many LGBT Americans, might seem as foreign as his accent.
Yet when Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey — the gay producers of RuPaul’s Drag Race and HBO’s Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures — sat down to watch the Off-Broadway show last year after a recommendation by the president of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins, they immediately connected to its subject matter of depression. They were impressed by how Donahoe — who incorporated audience members into his story of coping with his mother’s suicide attempt — made a personal struggle universal in a way they had never seen accomplished in mainstream media.
“We were just blown away,” said Bailey. “It wasn’t earnest. It wasn’t itself depressing. It was funny and upbeat and life-affirming, and that really spoke to us.”
“Depression is one of these things where if you don’t experience it yourself, you know someone who does,” said Barbato. “We were inspired by it, and felt it connected with our wheelhouse of work at [our production company] World of Wonder. We like to make films about people or subjects that are often either maligned in the media or not discussed at all in the media.”
And so a film was made. Every Brilliant Thing, a taped version of one of Donahoe’s performances at New York’s Barrow Theater produced by Fenton and Barbato, premieres Monday night on HBO. Its arrival during the holiday season — “a time of personal crisis for many people,” Fenton said — couldn’t be better timed. LGBT people, in the wake of a tumultuous presidential election that has spurred a surge in hate and hate crimes, are particularly at risk for depression during this period.
“Many people struggle with depression in our community for all the reasons that you’d imagine, or that you personally know: the struggle of coming out. The struggle of dealing with homophobia,” said Fenton, who sees a renewed significance of the production in light of Donald Trump’s win.
“If America wasn’t a country facing epidemic depression, the result of the election simply would not be possible," he said. "We are where we are simply because this country is chronically depressed, I might say suicidally so, since it’s more than likely that the outcome will be devastating. I mean, more than it already is.”
Fenton described the documentary as a kind of “prescription for depression.” One of these salves — as evidenced in the title — is a list of “every brilliant thing,” which include items like “ice cream,” “falling in love,” and “peeing in the sea.” Donehoe had begun this list as a means of coping with his mother’s attempted suicide as a child. The itinerary grew over his lifetime to include both simple joys and complex ideas like “that feeling of calm that comes over you when you realize that although you may be in a regrettable situation, there is nothing you can do about it.”
At different points in the production, audience members are called upon to shout out these items. It reminds Donahoe (and the viewer) to hold onto joy during difficulty — and it could be useful tool for LGBT people preparing for uncertain times ahead.
As the production reminded its producers, it’s the little things that matter. The new film Trolls ranks high on Barbato’s list of brilliant things, as do Christmas cards “with birds on them.” Fenton sees glitter as a brilliant thing. “It’s a little evil, but in a good way,” he said, noting how, when it’s sent on a Christmas card, for example, it sticks to the recipient for days on end. He praised Carrie Fisher for habitually carrying a vial of it.
Naturally, the pair also ranks drag queens as high on their list of brilliant things. RuPaul’s Drag Race “shines a light on brilliance” by giving an international platform to previously unrecognized performers, said Barbato. Viewers may also see parallels between the message of Every Brilliant Thing and the struggles overcome by Drag Race’s queer contestants — many of whom faced adversity in their lifetime.
“It is that thing of really pulling yourself up by your boot straps and reinventing yourself,” Bailey said.
The producers also believe Drag Race, like Every Brilliant Thing, will take on new meaning under a Trump administration. Already, it is “one of the most political shows on TV,” Barbato said, and one only needs to look to its host, RuPaul, as a bellwether of political acts to come.
“As Ru said, every time he bats his eyelashes, it’s a political act,” Fenton confirmed. “Artists, whether drag queens, painters, poets, singers… their voice and their work is more critical than ever.”
“He’s never really had to go out and speak politics,” Barbato added of RuPaul. “But until literally, this past year, it’s the first time that Ru has felt the need to – if you check his Twitter and stuff —he’s the most overtly political he’s ever been. It’s some kind of signifier that we’re entering a danger zone. We’ve entered it. We’re there.”
Indeed, RuPaul has been vocal both during the presidential campaign — he endorsed Hillary Clinton in interviews before his historic Emmy win — and sounded off his overwhelming disapproval after Trump’s election.
“As a kid, I couldn’t understand how the world could stand by and allow a Hitler to happen. Now I do,” he tweeted in November, after the Republican candidate’s win.
In recent weeks, RuPaul has also used his platform to address mental health issues. “If you only knew how fragile your own mental health is, you wouldn't be so cavalier,” he tweeted on November 27, adding, “Show some compassion. Please.”
Many LGBT media outlets believed RuPaul's comments were in response to remarks made the previous day by Lucian Piane, a past guest judge on Drag Race whose mental health was called into question after he posted erratic and vulgar tweets. Piane referred to RuPaul as the “n” word in one posting. Previously, in October, the gay music producer also stirred controversy on social media by blasting Clinton and spreading wild rumors about the sex lives of LGBT notables.
Barbato and Bailey declined to comment on Piane. When asked how friends and family members can help loved ones battling depression, particularly when that battle is on a public stage, Bailey referred back to the message of Every Brilliant Thing.
“What we did in the film is we documented this play about this guy and his mother and dealing with her depression and her mental illness. But it’s a fairly universal message to anyone who is depressed or dealing with someone who is depressed,” he said. “It’s not a cure. It’s a piece of work about this issue. And the issue of depression and mental illness is insufficiently explored in art and media.”
And what lesson does he hope viewers will learn?
“There is hope.”
Every Brilliant Thing airs Monday, December 26 on HBO. Watch the trailer below.