For this edition of Creator Corner—a series of interviews dedicated to independent content creators, especially those from marginalized communities—I got the treat of talking to critically acclaimed playwright Oliver Mayer. Opening October 26th, Mayer’s play “Members Only” is the sequel to his groundbreaking play “Blade to the Heat.” One of the most influential faces of the LA Arts and Theater community, Mayer’s play is about an America of color forging racial and sexual identities in the years leading up to the AIDS crisis. But it’s message is both decidedly hopeful and poignant in light of today’s socio-political context, and that’s what I wanted to learn more about.
Gretchen: How long have you been writing and what got you into writing in the first place?
Oliver Mayer: I started writing plays at 19 years old – nearly 34 years ago. But I think it all started because of my mother, who of all things wanted me to be an actor. Because of her, I was able to see plays from an early age. Because of her, I saw ZOOT SUIT at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978, when I was 13 — and I can draw a straight line from that moment to this one because I saw what plays can do. I think it’s the single coolest job in the world. Everyone gets caught up in the “wright” of playwright (meaning to make or build or create), whereas I take daily joy and solace in the “play” part. How rare and wonderful to be asked to play in your very job title?
G: Absolutely! So, with so many people watching movies and TV shows, how do you see stage plays fitting into telling the stories of marginalized communities? Is there anything they can do uniquely well that other media can’t?
OM: Crazy as it sounds, plays on stage mean more than ever – and particularly when it comes to those of us who feel left out of the picture somehow. Whether we feel outside the box because of identity or behavior (or both), plays – when they are done right – not only reflect us as we really are but also bounce the light in unexpected ways to help us see that we are not alone after all. There is something holy about the experience of sitting in the dark, looking at the light and living the story happening in front of us in real time that just can’t be replicated. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
G: I grew up around theater, so I wholeheartedly agree! “Holy” is a the perfect word for that experience.
“Members Only” is a sequel to “Blade to the Heat,” which some of our readers may not be familiar with. Can you tell us a bit more about your first play and how “Members Only” fits into that story?
OM: I wrote “Blade to the Heat” in the early 1990s, at a time when AIDS had ravaged our country for a decade, when misinformation was rampant, and when people of color were particularly at risk. I set my play in the world of boxing (I was a boxer as a teenager) in the late 1950s, a time and place that were particularly rigid and cruel, and I told the story of Pedro Quinn, a young Latino fighter who wins a world title only to be outed as a gay man. Even though I placed the play in a long-ago period, people quite rightly read it as an AIDS play, because it dealt with the dangers of sexuality – not simply disease, but the potential violence that can occur among those who have secrets of their own.
Now, 22 years after “Blade” played at the Mark Taper Forum, “Members Only” revisits the surviving characters. The story takes us up to the year 1982 in New York City – a time not unlike our own, with wild and fun explorations of diversity and non-binary identity in art and fashion. But 1982 was also the year that AIDS was named. In this play I put Quinn and the rest of the characters on the front lines of this disease, on a knife-edge without knowing the danger all around them. And I try to make Quinn that kind of lonely warrior who ends up being a difference-maker in the most trying of times.
G: Oh wow, your main character, Pedro Quinn, sounds fascinating! What inspired you to tell his story?
OM: Good question! As a playwright, I need to sniff out the drama wherever it may be. The idea of someone in a world that neither respects nor understands who he really is makes for lots of hard choices and consequences. Making him a boxer, and a person of color, makes him close to me. Unlike me, he is not a person who talks or writes a lot! But he is someone who operates from deep feeling and is not afraid to show his passion. I’m a million times luckier than Quinn, but I do understand feeling left out, excluded, judged. Something tells me that audiences understand this feeling too.
G: So, “Blade to the Heat” came out 20 years ago, what drove you to write the sequel now?
OM: Timing is everything, and the funniest part is that it’s beyond any one person’s control. I have been working on this play for several years, with many stops and starts along the way. But since Jose Luis Valenzuela agreed to direct the play — and joined me to try to figure out what we really wanted to say – the play suddenly became electric, highly charged, and incredibly reflective of the very scary times we are living in today. I wrote the play to attempt to deal with redemption, to take someone wracked with guilt and regret and try to give him a moment’s absolution. I guess I was hoping for that feeling of absolution for myself. Now I see how much we all need to just breathe and feel one another’s heart with our hand and say — “I know.”
G: As you said above, “Members Only” takes place in 1982, just prior to the AIDS crisis coming to the forefront of American consciousness. What made you decide to choose that setting and how do you see that as being relevant to our current socio-political context?
OM: In 1982, I was 17 years old, on my way from Los Angeles to Cornell as an undergrad. The world was wild, scary, sexy. Politics were incredibly frustrating and frightening (although Trump makes Reagan seem a lot more moderate than he was). Music was great, although it was transitioning away from disco into what I guess we’d the New Wave. I discovered Willie Colon and salsa (we didn’t play a lot of that kind of music in the San Fernando Valley!), not to mention that Lower Manhattan sound and style epitomized by Laurie Anderson and The Talking Heads. In boxing, it was the Golden Age of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and other all-time greats. Despite the challenges, I remember thinking that we could work out our problems and find a way to live free. I didn’t see AIDS coming, and I didn’t know that people of color and people who identify LGBTQ would essentially be fighting the same battles we are fighting today. As a playwright, I’m sure that if I tell the story of MEMBERS ONLY right, then we will see ourselves now, in our immediate present, in a new light.
G: I love that both the play and cast showcase a wide variety of diverse identities: race, ethnicity gender, age, sexual orientation. What do you see as the value and goal of such intentional inclusivity, especially in the world we’re living in now?
OM: Plays ought to look like the world we live in. I live in a place and time where diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions and life choices are welcome (thank goodness) and here to stay. I also embrace hybridity, the mixing of cultures and identities; it’s actually why I have stayed here in Los Angeles, because this highly hybridized population is mine. But I know that Nebraska is starting to look a little like LA. I was in Indiana this summer, and I realized that the folks I met looked a lot more like me than Mike Pence! I’m just doing my job – finding the drama in the lives we really live, who we really are.
G: That’s really beautiful. There’s a lot of overlap between boxing in a ring and fighting social stigma. Which came first for you, a story about boxing or one about fighting bigotry, or did they both come at the same time?
OM: I learned so much in the ring. It happened during my coming of age, so I felt all the things you feel while learning how to hit and not get hit. The lessons I learned (especially the hard ones) I continue to use in my life outside the ring. Fighters learn respect for their opponents, and not to fight too angry. The best fighters are calm; they breathe, they don’t think too much, and they operate with a basic trust in their preparation and natural ability. I quit the ring at 17, but the ring didn’t quit me. I took this fighting knowledge into playwriting, and into political and social activism. Now I take what I learned and try to teach it to my playwriting students at USC. Bigotry is a tough opponent: you can knock it down but it keeps getting up. But so should we. In the end, the biggest lesson learned in the ring was that I could take a punch, that it’s not the worst thing in the world – not by a long shot.
G: A lot of media these days is pretty raw or violent, but that kind of ‘grittiness’ seems to be the end of it. What led you to include not just the violence but a more hopeful message?
OM: I’m deeply hopeful in our better angels. Even if the country is being run into the ground, we aren’t dead yet. There were lonely warriors like Quinn who gave us hope in the darkest of times. There were people who came together, even during times of plague, and loved one another even when love seemed impossible. As bad as many of us feel about our present moment, I think that MEMBERS ONLY will remind us that we have endured as bad and worse, and that the only way to get through it is together, with honesty and a ferocious passion for life.
G: I heard there might be another sequel in the works, making this a trilogy. Anything you can tell us about where the story would go after “Members Only”? If not, are there other projects you’re working on you can tell us about?
OM: I am going to write the third play in this Trilogy, but I can’t tell you what is going to happen, because I don’t know yet! Next for me is a musical called THREE PADEREWSKIS, with music by the very talented Jenni Brandon. We won an international prize to write this. It’s about the great Polish pianist, statesman and winemaker Ignace Jan Paderewski. We’ll perform a version of it in November in Paso Robles (where Paderewski made wine), and in Los Angeles in December. Should be a blast.
G: That sounds really exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
OM: Thank you for the super questions, Gretchen. I feel blessed. I’m grateful to be able to do what I love. People should come out and see the play: it’s a lot of fun, with great music, gorgeous and talented people. Murder, romance, and a twist. Anyway, let’s hope!
So there you have it, folks! A stunning, compelling, beautiful new play from a long-established and award-winning playwright. If you live in LA, definitely check it out!