Nick Patricca has served a critical role in Chicago theater since the 1970s, when he wrote groundbreaking plays inclusive of gay characters. As a gay playwright, his work has been respected both in our community and in the Chicago--and Europe--mainstream theater scene. His most recent world premiere is The Defiant Muse, running through Oct. 28 at Victory Gardens Theater.
In the play, 'Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the most celebrated writer in Mexican history, duels with the imaginary Don Juan, her literary alter ego, to reveal the spiritual process through which she discovers her true power and identity,' states the theater's Web site. 'Her chambers become the salon of the New World where artists, scientists, scholars and philosophers converse without fear of the Inquisition. And after a devastating betrayal, Sor Juana writes the brilliant essay affirming the rights of women to participate as artistic and political leaders in the creation of culture and community.'
Patricca, an ensemble playwright at Victory Gardens, sat down for an interview for the Chicago gay and Lesbian History Project that I am working on; featured below are excerpts.
Tracy Baim: Let's discuss your seminary years; what was that like as a gay man?
Nick Patricca: Well, it was interesting because it was a very spartan seminary; it was 'the best in the country.' It was taught by the French Sulpician Fathers, and I was in a dorm--a freezing cold dorm with maybe 200-300 boys, so it was like being in the military. There were what people called euphemistically 'particular friendships', but I don't think there was any sexual activity. Then, I went to St. Vincent's in Pennsylvania and I got my BA and my first MA there, and also there were particular friendships there, too, and I still think, maybe naively, that there wasn't any sexual activity.
TB: What was your understanding about the larger world and how that was starting to define you, and your identity?
NP: Well, the civil-rights issue was the dominant one, and the changes in the church. The election of [ John ] Kennedy was the first big change, and then the beginning of Vatican Two, and the civil-rights movement. So I became actually involved in civil rights in ཽ it was my next to last year in seminary. So those were the three great events. Kennedy's election was very transforming, the second Vatican council, we were very involved in that so there was a tremendous change, and in a sense the best and the brightest, unfortunately, left the seminary and I think that the church is suffering today from that. I think the mediocre bishops have inherited the church.
TB: So let's move you to the PhD program in ཾ.
NP: The University of Chicago Divinity School was [ seen in a media report as ] the finest and best divinity school for the study of religion in the world. … I loved Chicago as soon as I saw it; I got an apartment in the South Side in the Disciples Divinity house. I was the first Catholic ever to be taken into the Disciples, which is still there on 57th Street. And when I came in to Chicago, I hadn't realized how segregated the city was. I used to walk to the South Side, because I moved out of [ the Disciples ] after the first semester, and I got my own apartment for $50 on 67th and Paxton, and I walked through Jackson Park. It dawned on me that I was the only white person in the entire neighborhood. … But I was quite naïve because I grew up side by side with Black people. Italians and Blacks used to fight each other but it was sort of ritualized on Saturday night. And it's calm during the week.
From ཾ to ྂ I was living on the South Side and then, because race was so obvious of an issue, I got involved with the civil-rights movement right there in Hyde Park. Then I met Dr. Eric Cast, who lived in Hyde Park, and he asked if I want to do community health work with him. He just put a white coat on me and we went out and he said; 'Now you're going to be a Physician's Assistant.' So I learned how to do intake triage, and things like that.
The Black Panthers were very controversial because it was the whole idea of Black power. I had left SNCC in ཽ because I was there when SNCC changed from the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee to the Student Violent Coordinating Committee because of the Black power issue. And so I was not into the Black power thing as violence, but only as empowerment, and because I understood that I had to take a position against violence. I was always ambivalent about [ the Black Panthers' ] approach to reality, because I supported their idea that you develop grassroots community involvement and you work with people … . Later I met John McNeil, who developed this whole philosophy around this, that you build community around healthcare issues.
TB: The time that you were with the Black Panthers in Chicago was their peak years. What were some of the issues, being a gay man within that environment?
NP: I started to grow my hair long, and I was also starting to wear jewelry. I didn't have an earring, oddly enough, but I had necklaces and I had rings. And [ this one doctor ] came up to me one day and he said to me, 'You know you can't have long hair, and you can't wear jewelry and you can't wear rings because that makes you look unmanly.' He said also, 'You have to wear the right jacket, because authority is important, and the Black Panthers want us to wear, you will wear white.' And I said I'm not a doctor, and he said it doesn't matter, it's about authority; he said I had to wear a white jacket, and [ that ] I had to put a stethoscope around my neck. So I knew he was wrong, and I knew they were wrong, because the Black people liked the fact that I wore jewelry.
TB: What were you aware of in 1969 in terms of what was happening with the gay movement?
NP: I got into the gay movement because of women. I was involved with the South Side Dance Collective, which was women working together; 'Women identified women' was the term and they were developing. Marge Whitney [ and ] Lucina Cathman were developing artistic work to express the idea of women's liberation. To me it was very natural that what we were talking about was gender and sexual liberation, so I got involved with the first gay consciousness-raising group at the University of Chicago, which was Murray Edelman, and Kevin Burke and myself and … and others.
… So what we did is we started critiquing our own experiences and ourselves, and eventually we all decided that we should move north. I was the first to move north, we thought that we had enough talk, we should go live. I would take el trips up north and I decided--I feel very proud of this--that I was like the first to discover Belmont and Halsted [ 3322 N. Halsted ] , and moved there in 1970. As I said, I rented a house, [ and rented it out to a ] woman's collective, although men lived in it, and Kathleen Thompson ran the bookstore on the first floor, which was called Pride and Prejudice.
I rented the whole building in my name, because I was employed; I was a professor at Loyola University, and I was in my PhD program at U of C still, which I got in 1972, but in 1970 I was still teaching full time. So what happened is that I was the one that had command to get credit, and so I rented the whole place in my name alone, but then Kathleen chipped in her portion to me, and the people in the collective, it was prorated.
TB: How would you define what that building was like in terms what worked and what didn't work, and was it kind of this defacto first community center?
NP: Well, it worked and it didn't work, as everything did. Some of the problems were the mixing of cultures. I had never in my life met 'Americans.' I grew up Black Italian; I had met some Jewish people. I had never really met Midwest people, especially from Oklahoma. Kathleen was Oklahoman, but she was a philosopher and a feminist writer, so there was no problem with interfacing. … The cultural differences were very significant, and once when the police came to the door, the police asked permission to come through the house, because that was a highly Puerto Rican and drug neighborhood when we were there, and they wanted permission to come through looking for this drug dealer and I denied them permission. They were upset, they were going to let them in, and I said absolutely not. So we talked that out. That was because, growing up in Pittsburgh in the ghetto, the police were not trusted. But growing up in Oklahoma, they trusted the police, and I found that impossible to understand. You would never let a policeman in your house for any reason.
TB: In the early part of the 1970s you were splitting your time between New York and Chicago.
NP: I got my PhD in 1972 and, although I was very happy as a teacher, and successful as a teacher, it was clear to me that that still wasn't enough. I started writing poetry, and I published a lot, [ in ] early gay journals. I was going to New York and spending half the year in New York, and working there in St. Marks on the Bowery Health Clinic, because I was still interested in healthcare. I also began working with the development of gay theater in the bars The Stud and The Eagle. At first I was just a participant, then I actually started performing my own poems and writing monologues, and that led me naturally into starting to write for theater, which I didn't really do until 1977.
TB: This is the pre-AIDS era. What was it like being a gay man in the 1970s in Chicago?
NP: It was deceptive; it was both exciting and it was deceptive. The exciting part was that it really felt like one could explore one's sexuality. The rhetoric of sexual freedom was that through the exploration of one's sexuality, one would get to know one's self and, ideally, come to knowledge. I mean this might sound pretentious, but really get to knowledge. I mean knowledge of the other, or God or whatever. But what happened, in fact, was that the exploration of sexuality degenerated very quickly into promiscuity in a bad sense. Which led eventually to the catastrophe of AIDS, among other things. You could see it way before that, my work in the health clinics was like a natural transition. I could see the diseases that occurred to poor people like high blood pressure, diabetes, pneumonia, tuberculosis. Then I was seeing gonorrhea and syphilis all the time in all elements of the community. But then all of the sudden you're hit with gay men, primarily … it was just an amazing tidal wave of syphilis and gonorrhea. Then it was chlamydia, and all sorts of strange diseases that no one knew what they were. I actually believe I saw AIDS before anyone knew what AIDS was. …
I was convinced that we were dealing with something that was really odd in 1980. And I did not like anything I heard the first couple times I heard about it. I thought things got too politicized and we weren't doing science, it's like the current Bush administration; we're never doing science, we're always doing someone's ideology.
TB: Let's talk about the late ྂs for the Victory Gardens work.
NP: In 1977, I almost died myself from several cases of hepatitis. When you face death young, you have to say no, or what am I doing? So I decided I was going to write for real. And I had never admitted to being a writer until much later, but I decided to write. I started writing monologues for the theater, and I put it together into my first play. Bill Norris, who actually got a copy of it, he called and said 'I want to do your play'. … So that was 1977, I spent three years under his mentorship putting it together … the first production [ of The Examen was ] in 1980 at the Victory Gardens … I've been with Victory Gardens [ ever since ] .
TB: What was it about, and why was it a groundbreaking play in Chicago?
NP: The Examen was kind of prophetic in that it described the life of a man who became pope almost by accident; who was homoerotic, but did not have a sexual relationship with anyone. More importantly, he has a vision of how the church should change. And he died one month after being in office, and this was, like, uncanny, because in 1979 that actually happened, and I had written that in 1977. In 1979 it actually happened to John Paul the First.
TB: And it was groundbreaking because, in a mainstream environment, had there been a gay production in Chicago?
NP: It wasn't billed as gay; it was primarily billed as Catholic and political, but certainly Rick Paul got the gay message, and because of the play he became my friend and I started working with Rick. And Bill Norris got the message because he's gay and he saw that possibility; in fact, he played the pope. Rick Paul wanted me to join Lionheart [ gay theater ] , and I did. So we started a collaboration; in fact, he did [ the set for ] my next play, The Fifth Sun [ at Victory Gardens ] , which was probably my most successful play to date.
The Fifth Sun had its world premiere in 1984; it's about Monsignor Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. I had students that were doing work in Central America, one of them had been killed, and I went down. I was in Honduras and I was in Nicaragua, and I became very interested … in liberation theology in practice around education, how you build community, and it was around literacy, and I've continued that through until today, this idea that you can use literacy as a means to build community, and instead of giving people the 'solution,' you let them achieve their own solution and implement it into their own lives.
That play just took off. That play has been translated into many languages and been done all over the world, and I continue to get emails and photos of people who have done it. I actually met a couple who said that because they saw this play, they had quit their jobs; they were very high-paid executives, and were doing peace work in Central America, and I'm looking at them and I'm saying, 'I didn't quit my job.' You know, it's a humbling thing. People were touched by the play, and still are.
TB: You founded the Chicago Network for Peace and Justice in 1977.
NP: It was obvious to me that building community around specific problems that people actually have rather than theoretical ones. … I created this informal network of people and organizations. … What we do is we fund literacy projects, we fund the Publication of Women, and other people who are traditionally not represented in mainstream publishing, especially Muslim women. In other words--if for cultural or religious reasons you're not permitted to write, or you won't be published if you write--we publish; we don't have our own publishing house, but we work with other publishing houses. For example, we have published 118 women writers from over 53 countries.
TB: Can you speak about The Defiant Muse, at Victory Gardens Theater?
NP: [ It's about ] Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun of the 17th century who was a fantastic woman, a genius. I've waited 17 years for this, and the play has gone through many forms, but I am very proud of this play. It won the Onassis Award. … Then the next play is a Civil War play. A lot of the critics actually say that I am too European and that I don't write for American audiences, so I'm going to give them an American play about our civil war, and this is going to be about Sarah Emma Tomlinson, who was a woman who passed as a man, and she was actually part of the first secret service treasury department spies. They didn't know she was a woman but she was, and they had picked her off of the battlefield because she was so heroic, and made her a secret service agent. She was the spy who infiltrated Confederate lines for the Union.
So I am going to write a play about her, based on an episode in her life in the swamp when she stumbles across a Confederate captain who is dying, and she's in the disguise of an Irish peddler woman. This woman managed to spy throughout the war without ever getting caught. She actually managed to be a cook, a Black cook if you can believe it, she was a Canadian woman who came down to the states, for confederate officers and generals. So she's amazing, and I was lucky enough to find her autobiography, which was published in 1865; [ I got ] an autographed copy on the Internet for $60.
TB: I want to end with a couple of the works that you have done that you felt maybe had impact in the mainstream about gay people generally.
NP: My work, in terms of its impact on the gay community, is probably more through my poetry, and less through my theater. Although some of the Lionheart productions, The Lemon Tree, but that was basically poetry, Dream Machine was a lot of fun, and that had a philosophical message, and a theological message. My Oh, Holy Allen Ginsberg play, sad to say, really did not do well in Chicago, but again, it did great in Dublin and it won the Oscar Wilde Award, and I think it's partly--and I mean this with affection for Chicago critics and audiences--that the Irish understood it, and they understood all of the literary allusions, and they weren't afraid of literature, and they weren't afraid of people who spoke literately. And so I think that my gay impact in theater is more in Europe. I did gay stuff in Rome, in Israel, in Bulgaria; I had a lot of impact in Europe, but very little I think in the United States, except through my poetry.