Robin Fulford’s play Steel Kiss, one of the seminal works in Canadian queer theatre, may be just as relevant today as it was when it premiered twenty years ago.
And this is a sad thing.
Inspired by the real-life murder of a gay man in Toronto in 1985, Steel Kiss, which is being revived at Granville Island’s Waterfront Theatre, tells the story of a gaybashing from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator.
“To me, [this play] is like the anatomy of a hate crime,” says the play’s director, Patrick MacDonald, speaking with me in his office. “It looks like [Fulford’s] trying to deconstruct who these guys are. And there’s no real easy answer in the play at all. There are no answers in the play, really, ultimately. But to me, he’s just trying to figure out, where does that misguided, fuelled anger and testosterone come from? And what is that anger of people who are different?”
While its focus is homophobia, and the victim of the crime at its heart is gay, the play skilfully reveals how homophobia is almost always inextricably linked with other forms of bigotry, as the four ordinary, unremarkable perpetrators betray racist and sexist attitudes as much as they do homophobic ones.
“So for me,” says MacDonald, “it goes beyond simply, a homosexual man being kicked to death in the park. And I’m hoping that people embrace it beyond that, so it’s an investigation of all hate crime, and of all deliberate actions committed by young guys.”
So why do this play again now, in this decidedly more liberal age in which gay people are more accepted and same-sex marriage is legal?
“Is there more tolerance?” says MacDonald. “I think there is. But,” he chuckles, “we do live in Vancouver.” He also points out that, because of the large number of queers in the theatre industry, his view of how tolerant the general population truly is may be somewhat skewed.
“Personally I do think there’s a greater tolerance. But I also think there’s a simmering, bubbling fuse underneath the surface of what I believe is a smaller group than twenty years ago, but they may be more angry and violent than ever before.”
MacDonald doesn’t know why this is so.
“I don’t know what possesses a gang of 19- and 20-year-olds coming in from the suburbs into the city, to think, ‘Okay, let’s go drinking and then beat up some guys.’ I don’t think you can get into that mindset. I don’t know if you really and truly can unless you sat down with one of them and really tried to figure it out.” Steel Kiss, he says, attempts to do just that.
One of the most compelling features of Steel Kiss is how the four actors in its all-male cast play a variety of roles (including female ones) while taking turns playing the gay murder victim. Not only does this enhance the play’s theatricality, but it also deconstructs deeply ingrained societal oppositions — gay/straight, male/female, majority/minority — and shows us that the belief systems and power structures that cause prejudice and bigotry are arbitrary and socially constructed.
The play is being produced by Green Thumb Theatre renowned as Vancouver’s pre-eminent theatre company for young audiences. Although the targeted age bracket for most of Green Thumb’s programming is 17- to 30- year-olds, MacDonald, Green Thumb’s Artistic Director, is aware of the danger of being pigeonholed as a “young people’s theatre,” as potential audiences are quick to jump to conclusions about what such a theatre looks like. He quickly points out that their shows, including this one, are truly for every age group. “We hope that we produce theatre that has enough of an edge, that’s sharp enough, that the subject matter is what really engages them.”
And Steel Kiss is certainly edgy — in terms of both language and subject matter, it’s uncompromisingly frank, at times brutal. The company has no plans to tone it down, even for the school matinees.
And MacDonald has ambitions for future queer-themed shows.
“I’d love to do a touring show for high schools — a show that would tour across Canada — which would be about the difficulty of a kid coming out in a small town, and which would, in effect, demystify [homosexuality].” He says going into communities where queerness is less accepted than it is in Vancouver would be imperative.
“Those are the people we want to change. We have to assume that, in our culture, each community has looked after its own. So if there’s a 15- or 16-year-old guy in, say, Ottawa, who knows he’s gay, he needs to know that there’s some kind of support somewhere nearby.”
MacDonald hopes that the show “creates a buzz about the play and the subject matter in both the gay community and the straight community” and that “it’s a perfect mix every night in the audience,” with half of the audience being gay and the other half straight. He also hopes that beyond being “really good entertainment about four really awful guys, that [the play] will get us talking, just to make sure that those discussions are always alive.” After all, he adds, it was just six years ago that Aaron Webster was beaten to death in Stanley Park.
“There’s still a level of fear that exists out there.”