The countdown has most definitely begun. For eight years, playwright/performance artist/gay activist Tim Miller has struggled to secure United States citizenship rights for his partner, Australian journalist Alistair McCrowley. The only way the two have been able to live together during the past few years is under a student visa McCrowley secured to study creative writing at Antioch University.
The final extension on McCrowley's visa expires at the end of the year. Meanwhile, as Miller noted in an e-mail interview last week, the United States remains the only Western country that doesn't recognize gay or lesbian bi-national relationships for purposes of immigration.
As a result, he fully expects to spend 2003 in exile, returning--at least, as long as he's allowed--"to draw attention to this ridiculous bigotry in America ... to perform/teach/agitate as an American-in-exile from U.S. human rights abuses."
Until he documents those international twists to come, we're left with Body Blows, a new collection of six potent performance scripts culled from Miller's first 20 years of gay arts activism, published by the University of Wisconsin Press. After co-founding New York's now-venerated Performance Space 122 in 1980, Miller devoted four years to increasingly complex multimedia performances. They culminated in 1984's Democracy in America at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, a work Miller still calls "my mega-big-budget flop."
Since then, simplicity has been the order of the day, at least when it comes to production values. A series of one-person shows followed, with the humblest of props: a group of faded T-shirts or an orange, a map of the world or a birthday cake whose candles pierce the darkness. All are simple, symbolic touchstones that evoke innocence, eros and, of course, the Missing, those who did not survive the years of plague.
Mainly, they prove that Miller doesn't need to shoot the moon on special effects. Not when a playwright's brand of verbal pyrotechnics works as well as his. And particularly not when the human body itself qualifies as a special effect, as it does repeatedly in works that constantly seek truth in embodied experience.
Durham's Manbites Dog Theater has hosted three such performances in recent years. Miller performed My Queer Body for their first "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" festival of queer performance in 1994 in their old space on Roxboro Road. Shirts and Skin played there in 1999, while Glory Box, which documents his ongoing battles with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, headlined "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2000.
In those poetic, autobiographical and sexually frank works, a man stands on stage, alone, and tells the truth about what it means to be gay, as Miller says at the close of My Queer Body, "In the time of trial/On the planet Earth/At the very end of the second millennium." As it turns out, true drama doesn't require an awful lot more than that. Taken in sum, these six plays mark a pilgrimage still in process, from naivete to hard-won experience. If the playwright does occasionally get mugged by an overripe or overwrought metaphor or two, they still resonate.
Miller's odyssey starts with the leaving-home narrative at the crux of Some Golden States. A far too earnest teenager in Whittier, Calif., follows Tolstoy into gardening, instinctively seizing upon it as an allegory for life. Miller's young fool subsequently takes the whole "bonding with the earth" thing to a graphically extreme level, in a sexual recounting that may be in questionable taste, but is still unquestionably funny. As he also recounts in Shirts and Skin, Miller then leaves home for San Francisco, where he is immediately befriended by the Moonies and the Socialist Gay Men's Collective. After these misadventures, and following the deaths of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk, Miller relocates to New York, where he "races through his lower twenties" in Manhattan.
In the drolly titled Stretch Marks, the playwright pauses to assess how experiences to date have, um, broadened, warped and helped him grow. Some of Miller's funniest work is in this episode. We're touched by how a gruff chicana lesbian high school German teacher named Fraulein Rodriguez finds common ground with a gangly "Anglo-Germano homo" over a copy of Death in Venice, schooling Miller, by example, in what he affectionately terms "all the irregular forms of the verb 'to be.'"
These occur before a sequence in which our gay Candide achieves satori--real revelation--through a most unlikely path: while throwing up a gutful of sloe gin fizzes as The Sound of Music plays on the television. To say the absolute least, I will never hear "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in quite the same way again.
But if Stretch Marks is marked by high comedy, it has some of the eeriest resonances of the cycle as well. Young men go in search of the nude, gay Speedo Lido, but find Zero Beach instead. From the time of an earlier atrocity over Lockerbie, Miller notes, "I watch the planes take off from LAX. I wonder which one of them will explode."
Stretch Marks is followed by My Queer Body, which Miller coyly calls his "most seminal work." It begins as an amusingly alternative creation myth in which the playwright narrates his journey as a sperm cell at the moment of conception: "I quickly find a willing dyke ovum, and we agree to power share. We reach consensus immediately (this is a fantasy sequence, all right!) and we ... FERTILIZE!!!!" Then Miller reenacts the terrors of first love. Recounting how much he and his date had in common, he enthusiastically notes, "I'm scared of everything too!"
But the boundaries that come down in the middle of My Queer Body mark that work as a strange litany, a statement of sexual vulnerability, mourning and, ultimately, affirmation. What does it mean when a naked Miller asks to sit on an audience member's lap, and confesses, "Some nights I feel this strange border between my body and some friends who are really sick right now. It's a coastline I don't like. I want to throw a surf-rider to them and pull them to shore ... but I can't do that. Who am I kidding? I wanna tongue-kiss them, and I do, even though I'm afraid. I wanna hold our bodies really close together so nobody else slips away and that I can try to do ... that I can at least try to do. And I'm really glad cause I don't think I can manage much fucking else. ... Please nobody go anywhere. I have one more thing I gotta tell you. It won't take long. I swear."
Death is never far from these narratives. If we're not surprised that Miller was a carpenter, a maker of beds in Naked Breath, we're still caught short when we hear of his encounters with men less than candid with him about their HIV status.
If Miller is a savvy writer who deliberately toys with the conventions of the modern gay narrative--the clichés of guilt, camp and foreshadowing--he never shirks what he believes to be his duty: to live, love and respond fully to the world. That quality makes this collection of stage works a "how to" book of sorts, a primer, passing strange, in how to be gay, love the world and keep the faith. As Miller tells it, it's not always the easiest thing in the world to do.
Contact Byron Woods at email@example.com.