Gay playwright Bixby Elliot is a bit nervous regarding About Face Theatre's Chicago premiere of his play Abraham Lincoln was a F*gg*t. Not only is the title's derogatory gay term provoking, the play itself is being produced in this proudly proclaimed "Land of Lincoln."
"I think I am a little trepidations because people really love Lincoln. But I love that people want to talk about it and that they have strong opinions about Lincoln or the word 'faggot,'" Elliot said. "When people actually see the play, it will seem less controversial than the title suggests."
Previously seen in Chicago in 2014 in an About Face workshop reading following its 2013 world premiere in Louisville, Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln was a F*gg*t focuses on a 17-year-old boy named Cal who is desperately looking for guidance as he comes to terms with his burgeoning sexuality. Given an assignment to write about the iconic 16th President of the United States, Cal seizes upon recent research suggesting Lincoln that had intense friendships with men. Cal's essay wins a national prize, putting him in a position with fraught family conflicts, bullying at school and the fear of revealing too much of one's self too soon.
Elliot came up with the idea for the play during the 2008 election year and when his partner started collecting some very rudimentary mid-20th century children's books that were part of the "Step Up" series about famous people.
"One was about Abraham Lincoln and it was so reductive," Eliot said. "I was thinking why don't we teach our children the nuances of people and especially our heroes because there's been a lot of academic research on Lincoln's sexuality and also his mental illness of depression… Why do our heroes have to be so unblemished? Why do they have to be held to such a high standard and why aren't they allowed to be human beings or real people?"
Since the title of the show could cause controversy, About Face Theatre is also producing a few post-show moderated panels including one on the The "F" Word featuring Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim and playwright Philip Dawkins respectively on June 7 and 14. There's also one on Lincoln's historical legacy on June 21 and on LBGTQ civil rights on June 28.
"The play really is about role models and mentors," Elliot said. "I'm excited that this is bringing up conversation and feelings for people."
About Face Theatre's Chicago premiere of Bixby Elliot's Abraham Lincoln was a F*gg*t plays June 5-July 5 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Preview performances are $20 ( $10 students and seniors ) and $35 ( $20 students and seniors ) for the regular run. Call 773-404-7336 or visit www.aboutfacetheatre.org .
Most people will have seen the work of gay Canadian playwright Brad Fraser from his time as a writer for the Showtime series Queer As Folk. But it is his controversial play Love and Human Remains that really put him on the map in the theater worldshocking for its frank language, violence and sexual explicitness at its 1989 world premiere in Calgary and later in 1991 for its American debut in Chicago.
It was originally titled Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of True Love, but Fraser has allowed theaters to use the alternate title which was first shortened for the 1993 film adaptation. After an absence of 20 years in the Chicago area, Love and Human Remains is back courtesy of Cor Theatre in what will likely be an uncomfortably intimate production at Rivendell Theatre.
"I wanted a play with a gay protagonist who wasn't dealing with AIDS or coming out," Fraser said, wanting to go against several theatrical norms of the time in creating his fragmentary and raw play. "It was for me about creating a character who was gay and wasn't a spokesperson, wasn't a victim or being victimized but was just another guy in a play like anyone else."
And though several critics at the time of its debut saw the play's inclusion of a serial killer as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, Fraser said he didn't intentionally include that plot point in the play for that reason.
"Serial killers weren't the hoary old chestnut of theatrical storytelling that they have become," Fraser said. "For me, it never is play about who is the serial killer. For me it was what would you do if you found out your friend was a serial killer. And metaphorically that opens up a lot of territory and I think people are free to interpret it in whatever way they want."
Though Fraser has had very productive theatrical career in the U.K., most notably with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, he thinks that American theater companies tend to bypass his work because it is too envelope-pushing. Nonetheless, Fraser is glad Love and Human Remains continues to be produced worldwide and that it is returning again to Chicago.
"When people read Remains, they think that this could be happening now," said Fraser, noting that some of his other work like Poor Superman that touched upon the AIDS crisis can come off like a period piece. "Maybe it's the universality of the themes in Remains of dealing with our sexuality, betrayal by friends and the search for love that is very universal for people in their 20s and 30s, so that's why I think that they're drawn back to the script."
Cor Theatre's Love and Human Remains plays June 4-July 11 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets are $25 and $10 for students. For mature audiences only. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.cortheatre.org .