Arts & Entertainment
2 min

The freak rebel

Warren Wagner’s debut play is about a man who’s had it with being fetishized by straights

Ryan Anning stars in a one-man play about a man who pleads his case after he uses AIDS as an excuse to get out of spending time with straight co-workers. Credit: Warren Wagner

Warren Wagner is riddled with issues.

The primary one now is the way straight people sometimes fetishize gay people. “When I walked around downtown Toronto holding hands with my ex, lots of straight people would come up and say, ‘You go, boys!’ and give us the thumbs-up,” he says. “Things are a lot better now — they’re not yelling ‘faggot!’ and trying to curb-stomp you — but it’s still really annoying.”

“I’d just rather be able to walk around holding hands with someone and not have people draw attention to it like it’s a freak show,” he says.

He usually addresses his peeves by creating films, but this time around he’s exorcising his demons by putting together a play where the protagonist endures a similar type of treatment. Called I’m with AIDS, his debut play will be performed at Gay Play Day, a two-day festival of short plays written by local queer playwrights.

I’m with AIDS is a one-man comedy starring Ryan Anning, who plays a character in the process of leaving his job. He’s alone, packing up his belongings in his office, telling the audience what happened and why he has to go. In a sense, he’s pleading his case.

It all starts when he accidentally outs himself to his co-workers, all of them straight. They’re far from put off. “They’re suddenly all excited to have a gay person at the office and want to take him to gay bars, hang out and talk about RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Wagner says. “He finds it condescending that they like him so much now. When they didn’t know he was gay, they never even talked to him.”

Things escalate when a co-worker asks him to come out to Jack Astor’s. He wracks his brain for an excuse not to go. The co-worker is germaphobic, so an illness might be the best excuse — but what illness? In his panic, he blurts out that he has AIDS. It isn’t true, and he regrets saying it, but he doesn’t see how he can take it back. It doesn’t work anyway; the force of their fascination with all things gay means this admission only makes them more cloyingly supportive.

Wagner insists that the play isn’t really about AIDS, and — while it is a comedy — AIDS is never meant to be a source of humour. “I don’t think AIDS is ever the joke. It’s always either the straight people’s reactions to it or the main character being too over-the-top with lying about it,” he says. “The play is really about the relationship between gay people and straight people.”

In the past, writing about his issues has often helped Wagner sort through them, achieving some calm. This play may help him deal with his annoyance at being fetishized by straight people. Whatever the result, it won’t be long before we hear from him again. “I have a lot of issues, so I’ll be writing for a long time,” he says.