On the Down Low: “Stage Directions”

Kim Surkan saw "Stage Directions" at the Penumbra in St. Paul--she says this original dramatic comedy is well worth seeing. Through April 24.

Stage Directions
Stage Directions

Homosexuality in the black community has always been kept on the “down low” – a cultural taboo, it’s not often mentioned or portrayed in African-American art or literature. But being black and gay are not mutually exclusive categories, just underrepresented ones, and Penumbra Theatre sets out to explore why that is so in an original new play by L. Trey Wilson called “Stage Directions.”

Wilson engages the question of what it would take to represent black gay men onstage by giving us a play within a play. “Stage Directions” centers around a dispute over an onstage kiss between two male actors: Gary, played by Desmond Bing; and Rod, played by Jay Jones.

The trouble arises when the script calls for the staunchly heterosexual Rod to kiss fellow actor Gary, who is gay. In the scenes that follow, tension mounts as the actors, director Jay (James Craven), and playwright Terry (Harry Waters Jr.) argue over how to stage the kiss.

Wilson’s clever framing of his play casts the audience in the director’s shoes. We are forced to consider the impact of homophobia in the black community on the production of an African-American play with gay characters. “I didn’t know it was going to be so hard,” says Rod of his inability to bring himself to perform the gay kiss.

The conflict threatens to doom the production of Terry’s play, and illustrates how divisive identity politics can become. Terry resists being classified as a “gay playwright,” telling Gary that he doesn’t identify that way – rather, he is a playwright who happens to be gay.

Underlying the discussion of what it means to openly identify (or come out) as a gay man is the parallel Wilson draws with being black in American society today, another axis of identity. It’s a controversial argument, levied at bisexual men who act straight and reject labels but hook up with men on the sly. “Being gay is just like being black,” Gary says. “If there’s a little of it in you, then that’s what you are.”

Gary represents a younger generation of black gay men who see their sexuality as political and something to be proud of, rather than something to be apologized for or avoided. His plea to Terry to “stop writing for straight people” is ultimately the goal Wilson is striving for in “Stage Directions,” as he gives voice to the conflicts and barriers facing a gay black playwright in seeing his work onstage.

Hats off to director Lou Bellamy for choosing to mount this play in St. Paul, and to the Penumbra company and this cast for carrying it off so well. Rarely is a play with such a timely political message also truly a work of art, but with Wilson’s script there is no compromise. “Stage Directions” is a dramatic comedy worth its ticket price.

“Stage Directions” at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent St., St. Paul, runs through Sunday, April 24