Playwright, social activist and big ol’ drag queen Sky Gilbert has never shied away from controversy. His gleeful antics as crusading tranny Jane pissed off all the right people in the ’90s, while plays like Lana Turner Has Collapsed, Suzie Goo: Private Secretary and Will the Real JT LeRoy Please Stand Up? injected much-needed queer commentary into Toronto’s theatre scene.
The latest production from this prolific writer, teacher and activist is called I Have AIDS! And it’s a comedy.
Prodon (played by Gavin Crawford) is a gay standup comedian driven to extremes. His outrageous stage act is a reflection of his erratic lifestyle; shades of grey have no place in Prodon’s black-and-white world. As one can imagine, a most-unwelcome HIV diagnosis is greeted with more than a little drama of the queen variety.
His partner Vidor (David Yee) is surprisingly supportive when the viral bomb drops into their relationship. Interior designer, primary breadwinner and romantic doormat, Vidor takes care of his lover while Prodon goes through what he calls the fives stages of a gay man dealing with AIDS.
“It’s based on [new age author] Louse L Hay’s stages of disease,” says Gilbert. “First there’s denial, then partying, then loss of control, religious conversion and acceptance.”
Prodon blazes through each stage with the ferocity he displays in both life and art, taking each step to the utmost extreme as he grapples with the enormity of his situation.
Crawford finds this both challenging and liberating in portraying the mercurial comedian. “I thought it might be difficult to play, but there’s a lot more of me in Prodon than I initially thought,” says the actor. “He’s a little bit of a fucker, and I realize that I am too.”
Playing Prodon’s subservient lover requires a more restrained approach for actor Yee. “Vidor tries as much as possible to counteract the doom and gloom that is Prodon’s initial reaction,” Yee says. “He’s trying to find the hope and the solution to the problems that the two of them face.”
Both actors cite Gilbert’s nurturing, hands-on direction in helping them to create their roles. “He’s right in it with you,” says Yee. “Sky has bad knees, but we were doing this scene where I was down on the floor and he still got down and showed me what he wanted. I know it was quite painful for him, but it didn’t stop him.”
This gentler side of Gilbert may come as a surprise to those only acquainted with the artist’s sometimes adversarial persona. His stance against gay marriage and well-publicized questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS certainly ruffled some feathers within the community.
“I have extreme opinions, it’s true,” says Gilbert. “I remember when I was teaching at University of Toronto and was invited to be part of Lynn Crosbie’s class. A student put my book on her desk and her gay friend said he wouldn’t go near any book by Sky Gilbert.”
Does this sort of emotional friendly fire upset Gilbert? He’s uncharacteristically subdued at the question, pausing for several moments to consider his answer.
“It makes me feel bad,” he says quietly, “but I have to remind myself that I’m not in the entertainment business. I’m trying to create art. I’m trying to create beauty.”