Playwright Oliver Mayer’s latest drama, “Members Only” delivers groundbreaking queer experience at LATC.
By Jorge Paniagua
When playwright Oliver Mayer’s best-known play, “Blade to the Heat” made its debut in 1994, the political climate throughout the United States was profusely anti-LGBTQ+. Although the sitting president at the time, Bill Clinton, was a Democrat, he signed initiatives, such as the Defense of Marriage Act which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage, further marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community. Moreover, the AIDS/HIV Crisis during the time continued to be a relentless issue for the community.
Mayer’s sequel to “Blade to the Heat,” “Members Only” takes place 20-plus years after the events of the 1982 original and is, once more, a play influenced by the country’s current political climate. For instance, “Members Only” touches on relevant matters such as sexual fluidity, the advancement of women in sports, “machismo” in the Latinx community and the overall marginalization of LGBTQ+ people of color trudging through a heteronormative world.
“I think this play reflects on our moment. It’s set in 1982 but it sure looks like 2018 because we got a lot of the same problems we had then,” playwright Oliver Mayer, who is an associate professor at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, said. “[We also have] a lot of the same kind of excitement and young people taking charge of their lives and, at the same time, an institutional kind of politics that really doesn’t give a damn and really doesn’t care if we live or die.”
“Blade to the Heat” was rather controversial during its regularly sold-out run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The mainstream play showcased an LGBTQ+ narrative unorthodox for its time: one featuring a professional boxer of color struggling to come to terms with his homosexual identity. Furthermore, the protagonist’s struggle is deepened by the hyper-masculinity deeply entrenched within the male-dominated sport of boxing. The themes presented in the play were also widely recognized as being connected with the AIDS Crisis during the ‘90s.
Although the original play was centered in the late 1950s, many audience members thought of “Blade to the Heat” as “almost like an ‘AIDS’ play,” according to Mayer — one beaming with relevance and metaphors in regards to the AIDS Crisis which was ongoing at the time. The AIDS/HIV Crisis was a central issue in Mayer’s sequel, “Members Only;” only this time the matter was directly, and not subliminally, addressed.
“The experience of living through the history of AIDS in this country — which, of course, is ongoing — but that particular generation between the ‘80s and ‘90s was the most dramatic thing that I have ever lived through,” Mayer said. “As a playwright, I have to remember the really hard moments in my own life — losing friends, being confused and also being the victim of misinformation.”
Aside from shining a necessary light on the crisis, another theme central to the plot of “Members Only” is “coming out” and the struggle that comes with openly identifying as an LGBTQ+ person.
The protagonist of “Members Only,” Pete Quinn, is living through a defining era in his life: although his physical state is debilitating his spirit is as strong as ever. Not only has Quinn succeeded throughout his career as a prizefighter but he has also lived an adamantly gay life, one filled with love interests of the same sex, without ever admitting, to himself or another person, that he identifies as a gay man.
“Quinn is, you know, not out in this play. And he’s kind of outed over the course of the play. I thought that [coming out] was one of the strongest personal choices — personal kind of events that a person could have,” Mayer said. “And it’s not just a sexual outing — there’s all kinds of outings that you can do to the people — but when they’re not ready to reveal who they are, and someone else does it for them, that’s such an invasion. But it’s also, for a dramatist, such an exploration — something so worth looking at and spending time with.”
According to Mayer, the writing process for this sequel took between seven to eight years to complete. This is in stark contrast to the writing process of “Blade to the Heat,” which took less than a week, Mayer said. The finished product, “Members Only,” provides audience members with a completely immersive storyline not exclusively focusing on Quinn; the play rightfully develops the other characters in a gradual manner throughout the play.
For instance, actress Gabriella Ortega’s performance as “Lone” in the play was captivating — she successfully embodied the sort of angst and irritation that comes with being an aspiring woman boxer in a sport controlled by men. Lone serves as Quinn’s mentee and admires him to a very passionate extent — her performance alongside actor Ronnie Alvarez, who plays the “Kid,” creates one of the strongest subplot lines in the play.
However, “Members Only” was filled with a number of all-star performances: Marlene Forte, for example, who plays Sarita, gives the performance of a lifetime as the widow of professional boxer, Mantequilla Decima, who is killed in the ring by Quinn. Her portrayal suffused with Latinx culture. Sarita was once an ardent practitioner of Santeria, a pantheistic Afro-Caribbean religious cult popular among Cubans; however, following the death of her husband, she has lost her way and no longer has faith in the spirits she once passionately attempted to invoke.
On a side note: Forte served as a major source of inspiration for Mayer to create this sequel. Forte, who is Mayer’s wife of 15 years, did not get the opportunity to play the female lead role “Sarita” in the original “Blade to the Heat.” She joked that if Mayer waited too long to finish “Members Only” she would be too old to play the part, Mayer said.
In essence, the queer play serves as a dynamic look into the arduous endeavor that is coming to terms with one’s LGBTQ+ identity in a rampantly discriminatory world. However, the play also triumphantly showcases queer Latinx community members, as well as Latinx culture, in a vibrant and stylistic manner.
The sequel is just as groundbreaking as its predecessor and serves as a kind of embodiment of what queer Latinx culture, in many ways, is. “Members Only,” produced by the Latino Theatre Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, will run at LATC until Nov. 18. For more information, CLICK HERE.