For theatre lovers, the Gay Men’s Health Summit in Vancouver on Dec 1 had a special attraction: a staged reading of local playwright Craig Barron’s new play, Men Like Trees.
Directed by Sean Cummings, Barron’s play is a tight, terse, and cogent foray into the lives of six gay men, ranging in age from 25 to 50, who navigate sex, love and relationships in 2006–25 years since AIDS first appeared.
Barron, a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s renowned Creative Writing program, explains that he doesn’t “want the play to be pedagogical. I want it to be a play that stands on its own.”
Cummings says what intrigued him about the play was “the relevancy of HIV and AIDS, not only in the world but also in my personal life, with people around me and my community.
“But what I was glad to find once I read the play,” he continues, “was that it did tell story through character, which is so essential in theatre. My concern when you’re dealing with any play, as soon as it has what can be conceived as a political or social beginning to it, is that it wouldn’t end up being a very compelling narrative. It might end up as a public service announcement, essentially. But Craig has completely avoided that.”
Barron, who has worked in various capacities with a number AIDS and queer organizations across the country, details the development of the play this way: “I was living in Victoria working for an AIDS organization and I was supposed to do a public forum on the current research on HIV and AIDS and gay men, and I thought, ‘Well that’s boring. I don’t want to bring these researchers in. I’ll write some scenes that illustrate the data.’
“So I engaged a local cabaret singer there, so she would sing a song, and then there would be a skit that I had written, then she’d do another one, and it was very community-based, it was all amateur actors.
“But none of the scenes were connected,” he continues. “They were isolated and they were very sketchy, so afterwards I rewrote it, and I connected all the scenes. And when I heard about the 16th AIDS Conference in Toronto, that they had a cultural program [and] were looking for proposals, I sent it there. And it got accepted.”
Barron says his play is based not only on research, but also on his experiences talking with young gay men infected with, or affected by, HIV and AIDS.
“I had personal stories that I wanted to tell. Meeting young gay men who are still really struggling, and young gay men that are still getting infected with HIV even though it’s always been there. I just want to draw the landscape.”
So what makes this play distinct from most other theatrical depictions of the epidemic?
“Actually today what’s different is that the landscape of HIV and AIDS has changed,” says Barron. “It’s now perceived as a manageable disease. But HIV rates are still going up.”
Adds Cummings, “Most of the stories, whether it be in the film medium or the play medium, that I’ve come across, have been about the history of AIDS and where we were pre-cocktail. And now, what’s hitting me most personally about what’s happening with AIDS today, is that the rates are still going up. It’s a conundrum. These are the things that people need to be talking about now.”
The most poignant exchange in the play involves John, an HIV-positive ex-prostitute, explaining to Joe, a young researcher, how he became infected, which was not via his former profession, but by the man with whom he was having a monogamous relationship.
“I got it through love,” John explains. “I had a strange rash, a couple of years into my muffins and monogamy. My doctor told me to take the test. Whammo. Told my lover. He gave me a funny look, said, ‘I just assumed you were positive–you were a hustler.’
“He never talked about protection; I just assumed he was negative. Latex just got in the way, got in the way of love. Isn’t that interesting?”
The exchange demonstrates one of the things that makes Men Like Trees so compelling: how it subverts our preconceptions of who contracts HIV, and how.
“The myths are enduring,” says Barron. “For example, that there’s a good boy/bad boy divide. There are bad boys who are spreading it and the good boys who don’t. And that is a myth. And it’s also very unfortunate from an educational point of view, setting up a war zone.”
Barron says he wanted his play to focus on some of the most common misconceptions about transmission in the gay community. “If [gay men] have unsafe sex with somebody, they assume that the person has the same status as themselves,” he says. “If a negative person has unprotected sex they assume that the other person is negative or they wouldn’t do this. There are misconceptions that sex-trade workers are spreading the disease when, in fact, people are getting infected in relationships. They think that when they fall in love they’re all of a sudden immune.”
Guided by the sure-handed direction of Cummings and featuring uniformly engaging performances by Randie Parliament, Thrasso Petras, Nelson Wong, Robert L Duncan, David C Jones and Stephen E Miller, the staged reading of Men Like Trees offered proof that if you wish to convey a social message, you attract more bees with honey.
The honey, in this case, is lean, witty dialogue, and a commitment not to agitprop but to the concrete lives of the play’s characters. Barron’s message is an important one indeed, one that everyone in this somewhat complacent age should continue to pay heed to.