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A Chorus Line reflection
A Chorus Line reflection
by Jennifer Vanasco - SGN Contributing Writer

The first time I saw A Chorus Line on Broadway, I was 16. It was my birthday, and it was all I wanted.

My dad took me; it was the only time we would go to a play together. We sat in the first row, off to the right side, so close that we could see the actors spit as they spoke, as if their words exploded out of their mouths and turned into glittering rainbows in the lights.

I already knew the score by heart, thanks to musical theater classes. "What I did for love," I mouthed along. "Love is never gone; as we travel on, love's what we'll remember."

At 16, I understood the song as yearning for something just out of reach.

This was 1987, 20 years ago next month. Michael Bennett, who birthed A Chorus Line, had just died of AIDS five months before.

I don't think I knew his cause of death at the time. I'm pretty sure I didn't know all that much about AIDS yet, cocooned as I was in my conservative, Reagan-positive hometown. What I did know - in a small, fiery piece of my heart - was that I might be gay.

I remember, so clearly, listening to the character Paul, who in the play talks about how father discovering that he is starring in a drag revue - and yet is proud of him anyway. He calls him "my son" for the first time in Paul's memory.

That was my first experience with an out gay character. I remember hearing Paul's monologue, sitting next to my own father, and crying. I kept glancing over at my Dad- what did he think, what did he think? Was he disgusted? Did he understand? But his face was a mask.

The way Paul talked about being gay - the seediness of it - I feared that. Seediness was all I knew of gayness, and I was a nice, middle-class white girl. I couldn't imagine a life of sticky adult movie theaters and clubs choking in tired feathers. It shut up the "maybe gay" part of me for another two years.

Besides, I was worried about how my parents would react. At the time, I was just starting to get to know my dad, who became more open after my parents divorced. He's a guy who was still telling racist jokes. I was sure his reaction would not be: "Take care of my daughter."

But I was wrong about my dad. Sort of. When I came out to my family at 20, he was the first to say, "I love you, you're my daughter, nothing will change that." Unfortunately, he recanted later, taking his love back. His girlfriend - now his wife - wasn't pleased about marrying into a family with a lesbian in it. We haven't really spoken since.

Tonight, I saw A Chorus Line again, on my own. My father would probably be surprised that I was thinking of him, or that I had fond memories.

Twenty years later, I am comfortably gay, and I live in a world transformed for gays and lesbians. Paul now is just another gay character in a universe of gay characters. His experience doesn't need to reflect my experience, because there are now a rainbow of gay role models. I sat in the audience tonight and felt removed, appreciating him as a character instead of as a mirror.

Until he got to the line about his dad.

Paul is telling the story of how he was going onstage for the drag show's finale. His parents, not knowing the nature of his role, had come to the theater early to drop off his suitcase before his national tour; they see him as he comes down the stairs in full Geisha. His mother takes a breath. "Oh my god," she says, horrified.

And then later, when Paul is out of makeup, he goes to them to retrieve his bag. He is ashamed. His father turns to the manager and says, "Take care of my son." It is a benediction.

I started sobbing. I now know that I will never hear protective, loving words like that from my own dad. And so for me, when the cast later sang "What I Did for Love," it was not about yearning, but about loss. It could be a gay theme song, because really it is about ferociously following your heart even when you know the cost.

Afterwards, the cast was collecting for Broadway Cares, which works to support people with HIV/AIDS.

I emptied out my wallet. The dollars were a tangible prayer - for my own grief, newly awakened, for all those in the community we have lost and will still lose to AIDS, and for the memory of Michael Bennett, whose great gift still dances across the stage, six nights a week.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning, syndicated columnist. Email her at jennifer.vanasco@gmail.com. She blogs daily on the gay political site VisibleVote08.com.
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