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Comes Naturally #4

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Crying Holy; Body of Evidence

Crying Holy

I had to talk my way into the preview of Wayne Corbitt's new play, Crying Holy. The publicity director for Theatre Rhinoceros has a policy against letting press into previews and she didn't know Spectator from a high school newspaper or her worst image of a sleazy sex rag. It was Thursday afternoon and if I was going to see the play and still have time to write about it for this column I had to see it that night. Well, she said, if I FAXed her some previous columns she would consider it. "Frankly," she told me -- professional, polite, and politic -- "Spectator isn't a very significant venue for us." Then she added, with just a hint of arch in her voice, "This play isn't really about sex anyway," and the light bulb went on for me: The old sex/dirt thing. We're doing Art here, not sex. Not the first time I've run up against that, god knows, but I was surprised. I mean this was Theatre Rhino, after all.

It's ironic because Crying Holy most certainly is about sex, though that's certainly not all it's about. (I managed to get to see the show after all, with help from Wayne and Theatre Rhino's cooperative director.) It's about the funny way people have of getting all fluttery in the stomach whenever sex or something sex-related comes up, especially when it's close to home. That omigosh-this-is-tooembarrassing -for-words-let's-change-the-subject kneejerk, the pained look on the face, the how could you, or the sudden deadening, deafening silence. Aren't these, after all, the ways we learn at those very tender ages that sex is something strange, private, secret, and... well... dangerous -- something subject to rules that are entirely different from the rules that govern all other forms of social, personal, and emotional interaction.

On the surface, Crying Holy is about a 40-year-old gay black man with AIDS who visits his family and tries to get them to acknowledge him and to deal with the reality of his sexuality and, even more significantly, the reality of his illness. But the impact and relevance of Corbitt's electric, subtle, and moving play go far beyond the specifics of being gay, black, or HIV-positive. Corbitt eloquently lays bare both the overt and the covert dynamics of the classic family sexual battle: the struggle between the family that wants to pretend sex doesn't exist outside the narrowest of respectable channels, and whoever it is in the family whose sexuality refuses to be confined in that way.

In Crying Holy the wavemaker is Waters Hardy, son of a devout woman preacher, a mother who can only express her fear and concern for her wayward son by turning the entire matter of his sexuality over to Jesus. While she fervently prays for her son's repentance, she adamantly refuses to acknowledge, either to him or to herself, the reality of who he is and what he has to deal with, day by day. Sister, foster sister, and friend all collaborate in the family stew by most good-naturedly pretending that there is nothing seriously difficult about Waters, ignoring as best they can the overt manifestations of his AIDS in their determination to keep everything light and cheerful.

These maddening dynamics of family denial, the core of Corbitt's play, are brought to life with stunning force by director Edris Cooper and the cast of five. They will strike familiar chords in anyone who has ever tried to gain family recognition for controversial sexuality -- whether that be as sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers or fathers; as gays, lesbians, bisexuals, s/m'ers, or vanilla heterosexual sluts; as people who are sexual when they are too young or too old, too married or too unmarried (or who are sexual with people who are too young, too old, too married, too black, too white, too Jewish, too un-Jewish, too Catholic, too un-Catholic, too... well, you know).

The family is, ultimately, the most conservative of social institutions. It is through the family that societal norms and taboos are enforced and passed on to the next generation. Yet the family also can (or could) be a fundamental, primary source of personal support and validation. Put these two together and it's not hard to understand why family conflict gets so explosive when someone in the family goes embraces what is considered abnormal, particularly if they do so with great enthusiasm and lack of apology.

Nowhere is this more powerful than when it is sexual norms that are being shattered. To begin with, sex is one of the most explosive energies to be subjected to the regulation of social norms. In addition, within the family we habitually closet virtually all sexual dynamics whatsoever. Think of the family as a sexual entity? Don't be perverted! Children as sexual beings? No way! Sexual attractions between parents and children, or between siblings? Not in our family! Discussion in front of the kids of what mom and dad like in bed, or of how the one felt when the other had an affair? Inappropriate!

Most of us are less than straightforward in how we present ourselves sexually to the outer world. We are even less honest about our sexual selves within our families, even when we can hardly sleep at night for the racket of all the bones rattling in the closets. It's not only gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who have to deal with coming out, with learning to proclaim and celebrate the full reality of who we are sexually, rather than hiding ourselves away. Unconventional heterosexuals (and who is not unconventional, one way or another?) often keep their real sexual feelings and practices as hidden as gays, and suffer the same kinds of personal truncation and disempowerment that is well known to those more used to identifying as sexual outlaws.

The ultimate test for anyone about standing behind who we are sexually, is usually the family. How many of us feel free to talk honestly about our sexual feelings and desires with our parents? With our children? With our brothers and sisters? How many of us speak to our family members about who we are sexually in any but the most perfunctory ways? How many of us dare demand to be seen and acknowledged by our families for this part of who we are? It is so much easier to shine everyone on, pretend to be more or less like everyone else, and avoid the heat. The thing about gays, lesbians, and (as Corbitt emphasizes) especially people with AIDS, is that they cannot hide their transgressive sexuality as easily as other sexual rule-breakers. The more pervasive a role sex plays in our lives, the more difficult and damaging it becomes to try and straddle the gulf between who we really are and who we conveniently may pretend to be.

I believe that in our heart of hearts we are, almost all of us, at least sexual outlaws, at most what the self-righteous Good People would call perverts. Divided inside between who we are and who we think we're supposed to be, we fight an ongoing, usually lifelong, war with our erotic natures. In many ways it kills the best, the most powerful, the most imaginative aspects of our erotic existences. It almost always keeps us from finding out about the full depth and range of our sexual feelings and possibilities.

That's why when Waters Hardy follows his mother around and around the house, trying to force her to see and care about the reality of who he is, he speaks not only for black queers with AIDS but for all sexual outsiders. And that's why I, a predominantly heterosexual white man, left Theatre Rhinoceros so opened, so moved, so drained, and so deeply appreciative of both Corbitt and the impassioned cast and crew of Crying Holy. To have the truth, the sexual truth, my sexual truth, perhaps your sexual truth, presented so clearly, so astutely, and so well, is both a treat and a healing.

[Crying Holy plays at Theatre Rhinoceros through February 20th. Call (415) 552-4100 for tickets and information.]

Body of Evidence

I went to see Body of Evidence, Madonna's latest film, on its opening night and was taken with it enough to go back to see it again the next. I loved it, rather uncritically, the first time, only to feel rather completely (and somewhat embarrassingly) disenchanted when I saw it again. It was like going out on a first date with someone exotic and enchanting, and then later on, when you get know them better, replaying your initial take on them and seeing everything about them in a different light. You end up seeing through both them and yourself, but still holding on to those warm first impressions because they were so wonderful, right or wrong. Who was it who talked about being in love with being in love?

On first viewing, I was just pleased as punch to see some serious dominance/bondage, pain/pleasure sex on the screen. Hollywood lighting and all, but way beyond the old media stereotyping, and with some wonderful lines and sly smiles to boot. I also found myself identifying strongly with Madonna's character: an unapologetic sexual kink who finds herself on trial as much for her sexuality as for the murder she is accused of committing.

There's a hot scene in which Madonna seduces and teases Willem Dafoe, ties him up with his own belt, and drips hot wax on his chest, his belly, and his cock. The emotional dominance game between the two of them is fierce and it rings true. I was fairly twitching in my seat, identifying with both Madonna and Dafoe. It's a perfect role for Madonna. She gets to be gamey, aloof, perceptive, and the sly temptress -- a top utterly intoxicated with power and control.

Dafoe realistically portrays the innocent initiate, mesmerized by the process through which he discovers things about himself he has never imagined. To be led into the heart of desire by someone who sees you better than you see yourself, whose pleasure derives from getting you to acknowledge what pleases you, the magician who pulls erotic coin after coin from behind your ear with a sleight of her hand or her teeth -- what could be more delightful except, perhaps, being the magician? In Body of Evidence, Dafoe is utterly delighted indeed. (Is this really what was happening between the two of them when they cut the scene? Madonna has described her attitude during the shooting as "scientific... not sexy at all," while Dafoe says he was turned on despite himself.) Anyway, it got me, no two ways about it.

Likewise the scene in which Madonna unzips Dafoe's pants and plays with his cock in the back of a crowded elevator, grinning with delight as Dafoe stares straight ahead, deadpan. When they emerge into a deserted parking garage, she stands on the hood of her car, raises her skirt, then fucks him on the car, pressing his back into the shards of a shattered light bulb while he gasps with both pleasure and pain. Stylized and glamorized to be sure (much like the sex scenes in Adrian Lyne's 9-1/2 Weeks), but definitely steamy. The audience was stirring and murmuring and laughing. Whether they were laughing with the scene or at the scene, I couldn't tell.

The film's two principal contexts -- the courtroom drama and the developing relationship between Madonna and Dafoe -- both provide opportunities for serious (if first-level) explanation of some of the basics of s/m play. We are told about the difference between pain for pleasure and abuse; about the executive who compensates for being in control of every aspect of his regular life by turning himself over to a dominant mistress; about the significance of consensuality. As Madonna, sexual deviate, defends herself without batting an eye while being cross-examined by District Attorney Joe Mantegna, she gets to pop holes in one stereotypical misconception about s/m after another. She speaks of s/m completely matter-of-factly, just another way for two loving people to express their affection for one another/why all the fuss? It's a setup that offers classic catharsis for any sexual outlaw.

Here it is, I thought to myself, s/m on the screen, attacked and defended, the pervert trading line for line with the Man and generally coming off smarter, wiser, more subtle, more mature. There's even a delightful subtext in the no-nonsense black woman judge who repeatedly tops both the goodboy male attorneys, delivering stiletto lines with icy tones and arched eyebrows whenever they try to get away with this or that.

The theatre audience -- almost entirely people in their 20s and early 30s, maybe five times as many women as men -- ate it up, I think. They were laughing with each triumph of Madonna's razor repartee, oohing and ahing during the sex scenes, falling silent as the scenes got more intense. You could practically hear everyone taking notes. All this at a UA theatre on an ordinary Friday night in America. I was eating that up as much as anything.

The reviewers are going to take this film apart the way they always take anything related to Madonna apart, and in this case they won't be without justification. The dialogue is stilted and forced, sometimes downright ludicrous. The cinematography is heavy-handed and loaded with cliche's. Willem Dafoe is amazingly clunky throughout (except during the sex scenes), moving and speaking so woodenly that you never forget he's an actor saying his lines. Surprisingly the film goes light on exploiting Madonna's body as gratuitous scenery. She doesn't dress exotically (she's in court, after all, trying to convince a jury that she's a regular sort of person even if she does play with handcuffs and wax), and when she's being outrageous it's all under the table, in subtleties and gestures. There are a few moments when she is nothing short of stunning, but someone resisted the temptation to play her body as a major factor in the film, no matter what Mick LaSalle says.

So call it one more bridge crossed in expanding the sexual consciousness of mainstream America. The problem is that in this case the representation is not only flawed but downright dangerous, which is why I was so disillusioned the second time around. Once my amazement wore off and I got to watch the emotional dynamics of the film from the perspective of having seen it all the way through, my delight became undercut by my uneasiness. It's hard to speak of this coherently without giving the film away, but given where the film goes, it's as likely to confirm stereotypes about s/m, and about dominant, controlling women who use their sexual power at the expense of men, as it is to push people to see through such simple-minded perspectives.

Spectator, February 2, 1993

Copyright © 1993 David Steinberg

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