Storytelling has always been a big part of civil-rights activist and author David Mixner's life, and he's bringing his unique story to Chicago's Greenhouse Theater Center Friday, Nov. 13.
The production, "Oh Hell No!," will feature Mixner's first-person accounts of important moments in his life as an LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist, as well as musical interludes by artists Chris Bolan and Emily Swallow, who are donating their time to do this performance. The music will seamlessly follow poignant parts of Mixner's stories.
"I'm on the stage the entire time and Chris and Emily come out and do musical performances in between me telling my stories," Mixner told Windy City Times. "We have a lot of audiovisual elements, including slides from the movement. I tell the stories and you get to see them behind me."
Mixner noted that he grew up in a place where storytelling wasn't just a tradition, but also the main form of entertainment on a Sunday. He explained that after Mass ( his family was Catholic ) they would all gather around and share stories.
"I developed the art of storytelling sitting on the front porch back home in the days when we didn't have a radio or television," said Mixner. "Storytelling comes naturally to me but I'm not an actor. I'm a classic, old fashioned, southern storyteller. I remember walking two miles across the fields when I was eight to a surviving member of the Civil War's house. He happened to be a Confederate soldier and would tell me stories about the Battle of Antietam. That was in 1954 and since the soldier went into the Civil War when he was 14 in 1863 he was 104 when he told me those stories. I would also listen to my Aunt Ollie talk about when President William McKinley was assassinated."
Mixner explained that he's been a witness to many events and the people who were making the history, and every once and awhile making that history himself.
"My show goes from 1976 when I came out to 1996 when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed by Congress," said Mixner. "I think some of the proudest moments in that journey was when I led the successful campaign to defeat Proposition 6 in California in 1978. It was a night I'll never forget. The fact that we never stopped fighting for our freedom. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, I never saw so much courage and nobility in a community in my life. I've been fortunate to walk among many courageous people. I was a pioneer in bringing the gay and lesbian communities together in the late 1970s and I'm really proud of that accomplishment. I talk about that in the show. "
The idea to produce and star in this play came to Mixner after coming out of intensive care about a year and a half ago. Mixner was critically ill and the doctors gave him an eight percent chance of surviving. But he did survive, and decided that he had to tell his story.
"I realized that I had all of these stories about our [LGBT] journey, and I've been fortunate to be on the inside of these things like the Briggs Initiative, the formation of AIDS organizations and many other things that I've participated in, witnessed and helped create," said Mixner. "I thought it's really important to get these stories out there in an entertaining way and how much fun it would be to go on stage and tell the stories of our journey with a sense of humor and a few tears here and there."
Mixner's life and career has encompassed more than LGBT and HIV/AIDS activism. While growing up in rural, southern New Jersey, Mixner encountered segregated schools, restaurants, etc. Although his parents were segregationists, he and his sister went in the opposite direction and became very active in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. He's also been involved with the anti-war movement over the years.
Mixner also got involved with politics for the first time as a volunteer for John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, and has participated in more than 75 political campaigns as a campaign manager, fundraiser or strategist. He's also been an unofficial advisor to many presidents over the years.
Not only did Mixner share a room with President Bill Clinton briefly when they both attended Oxford, but he also worked closely with Clinton on his presidential campaign and brought a lot of LGBT people aboard.
In the play, Mixner also talks about his disagreement with Clinton over the administration's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) policy and what effect that had on their relationship, as well as the time he got arrested protesting DADT in front of the White House.
Mixner noted that critics in New York City and Los Angeles gave the show rave reviews and the audiences in both locations told him they loved the show.
"It was far beyond anything I could've dreamed of or hoped for when I was putting this show together," said Mixner.
Like the NYC and LA shows, proceeds from the Chicago show will benefit Point Foundation Scholars. According to Point Foundation's Communications and Marketing Director Eugene Patron, together the NYC and LA productions raised enough money to fund six scholarships for a year.
Mixner explained that he chose to give the proceeds for all of his shows to Point Foundation Scholars because of his involvement with the organization and his desire to help future generations of LGBT students go to college.
"I was very moved by the stories of the students I would hear at Point Foundation events who've been kicked out of their homes and living in their cars or streets who were getting 4.0 GPA's in high school," said Mixner. "When you hear the success stories of these young people who went to Harvard or Columbia or the University of Chicago or Stanford or Berkeley, who are now doctors and lawyers and are giving back to our community, I couldn't think of a better investment. That's the attitude all of us had going into the production. We're raising money to help LGBT kids go to college who wouldn't have been able to go otherwise."
"It's an honor and a joy to support David's storytelling," said Swallow. "I'm beyond grateful for the work he's done for civil rights so it's a pleasure to watch the show and contribute to the riveting evening he creates simply by sharing from his heart."
"David is a part of a generation of LGBTQ individuals that were at the forefront of change in this country," said Bolan. "His innate capacity for storytelling and ability to connect with the audience on a deeply personal level allow us to see this important history through his eyes. His charisma, vulnerability and humor on stage create a dynamic piece of theater and I for one am honored to be a part of this important show."
Ahead of the Chicago show, the production will be traveling to Atlanta's Woodruff Arts Center Thursday, Oct. 29.
Mixner noted that they've also had inquiries to bring the play to the Embassy in the Dominican Republic and the Kennedy Center as well as an interest from the Mayor of Milan, Italy, to bring the show there.
"Come see this play," said Mixner. "Hear your history, some great music and help kids go to college. Enjoy the laughter and bring a few tissues to wipe away the tears. You'll have a great evening while also supporting a fantastic cause."
To purchase tickets, visit www.pointfoundation.org/davidmixnerchicago .