BFs! at Slipstream: Coming out never looked so hopeful
Two teenage boys struggling with their sexual orientation can find a lot of truth and drama in a tiny bedroom. Before anything sexual ever happens between them, it is a sanctuary of conversation about sexual excitement, fear, self-loathing, insecurities, adolescent questions, small triumphs and significant defeats. And we are voyeurs, so close to the action at the tiny 25-seat Hazel Park black-box space being used by The Slipstream Initiative to stage BFs!, that one actor brushed up against my leg in a scene, and I almost mistakenly put my notebook down on part of the set.
BFs! feels like an important play. It is not brand new. Written by *Frank Anthony Polito, the two-character play has been performed in San Francisco, Omaha and at Carnegie Mellon University. It is based on Polito’s novel, Band Fags. Set in Hazel Park, Michigan, where the playwright grew up, Polito said in the curtain speech that once he saw the little space in his hometown, after moving back to Michigan from New York, “I knew I had to put it on here.”
The two characters are Jack (Jackson Abohasira) and Brad (Maxim Vinogradov) who open the story at about age 13. The actors, who are actually ages 17 and 18, both have a boyish physical quality that allows them to pull off the illusion of being 8th graders, and then do equally as well portraying high-school seniors at the close of the story.
Polito notes that the average age of kids coming out has shifted downward for teens to age-12. That is due, probably, in large part to the growing openness of the gay community and, thankfully (current events in Kentucky this month notwithstanding), growing tolerance as well. So many role models, from actors to athletes to public-office holders, have come out that the climate for gay kids keeps getting better. Indeed, the angst felt by Jack of self-identifying as gay circa 1984-1988 may feel to some almost as nostalgic as the Trimline phones, turntable and REO Speedwagon records and Betamax in the small set.
But no matter how many of us, gay or straight, color our Facebook profile pictures with rainbow colors or binge-watch Glee, it is also worth knowing that teenage suicide today is at an all-time high. This is especially the case among gay and transgendered youth, who are still bullied by homophobic classmates (probably the minority in their school but no less potent with their poison) either physically or via social media with too much frequency, and marginalized or barely tolerated by conservative parents and school officials.
The strength of BFs! is the feeling of watching the two boys from inside the walls of Jack’s house, or listening to a secretly taped recording of their hours of confidential chatter. Polito has a gift for writing dialogue the way teens actually talk, which is a relief since many writers do not. And Abohasira and Vinogradov have such extreme chemistry and comfort with the material—despite not identifying as gay themselves in real life I am told—that the specialness of what we are witnessing on stage rings even clearer.
Jack is socially awkward and deeply uncomfortable with the fact that he knows he is gay. He doesn’t want to be gay at age 13, 14, 15. And who can blame him, especially in the mid 1980s, though the story finishes just under the wire before the AIDS crisis. Brad dances around his gay self awareness early in the story, but then lives it on the edge, never proclaiming it, but going to gay bars and being comfortable that his closest friends know his truth.
My beefs with the performances are minor to the point of hardly being worth a mention. At times, the two actors speak on the Trimline push-button phones. One is mounted on the bunk bed for Jack to use. The other seems to lie on the floor for Brad to pick up and throw down, which seems weird. Mount the other damn phone! Phone conversations start as the boys are in their respective homes. But then they stop talking on the phone, and talk directly to one another in the room, and then finish up back on the phone. I’m sure director Baily Boudreau could give an artistic reason for this, but it just comes off as looking sloppy, as does the actors’ seeming inability to handle a phone about twenty times the size of an iPhone. It is as if they are each holding a watermelon trying to make it perform telephony.
It is not a perfect play. Though we feel some relief when Jack finally comes out and will hopefully stop dating girls who are mere beards for him in school, there is maybe a greater de nu monde possible? Some greater dramatic device or story arc maybe? The play reminded me somewhat of John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace,” so maybe I was expecting one of the boys to be tragically killed at a gay bar at the hands of rough-trade, or die by their own hand? Or am I being obtuse, and incredibly under-estimating the soul-torturing enormity of Jack’s resolution to “just” admit he is gay?
Or maybe the play is more perfect than I think. After all, the boys made it. They got through their teen years unbroken. They had one another. Brad has a Mother who balanced his bigoted Father by getting him a full-size Barbie head that he could make-up and comb, albeit in private. Jack’s Mother is only 14 years older than he is, and she apparently knows about her son and wants him to know she understands and is not oblivious or uncaring.
So, maybe no one had to die for this play to make sense, to be lovely, to be relevant. In light of raging homophobia in pockets of every community, clinging to their intolerance like assault-rifle clad cats on a screen door, perhaps we can take away that the goal of a society might not be that we all color our Facebook profiles with rainbows, but that all of us, at the very least, can eventually just let gay and transgender kids know that it’s okay. That even the most wary, conflicted and uncomfortable among us can say that they agree to just understand and accept, that they are not oblivious and they will agree to stop bullying these kids in both the the terrestrial and digital world for the awful crime of being who they are.
*Playwright Frank Anthony Polito is a regular theater reviewer for EncoreMichigan.