Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Christopher Murray
Like the iconic Estragon and Vladimir, Biloxi Billy (Stephen Cabral) and Nat (Nick Mathews) are an odd couple thrown together by the vicissitudes of fate into an abusive marriage of inconvenience. It's 1931 near Flagstaff, Arizona and various drifters are congregating near the railyards in the hopes of finding work on a nearby spur. Billy is scheming to achieve a windfall by knocking over the Pinkerton security agents, or bulls, who guard the payroll coming in on the timber truck. So, the Beckett landscape morphs into a Dashiell Hammett-esque grifter crime tale of the Depression. But wait, the abusive Oliver Hardy smacking around the shivering Stan Laurel story changes yet again when Billy places his meaty hand inside the patched overalls that barely cover Nat's pale boyish body. It becomes clear that Billy and Nat are a jocker and his punk, one of those strange sexual couplings that occur when groups of men are separated from womenfolk by dire economic circumstance, or perhaps by predilection as well.
The Jocker admirably tries to rescue some of the little known pre-Stonewall mythology of gay life from the dustbins of history. Three male couples are thrust together to exemplify the sort of relationships that men who would most likely identify as gay today might find themselves in back then.
In contrast to the almost master/slave dynamic between Billy and Nat, Bama (Jason Alan Griffin) and Shakespeare (Michael Lazar) have built a genuine partnership based on mutual attraction and support. Dodger (David Tacheny), proudly showing off his wedding ring and speaking lovingly of his wife back home, nevertheless finds comfort for a time with Lucky (Stephen Tyrone Williams), an African American man who has resorted to prostitution to survive.
The fate of the three couples becomes intertwined with tragic consequences when Nat's desire to escape Billy's abusive yoke runs afoul of the poorly planned robbery. The obvious melodrama of the plot, with Biloxi Billy an almost moustache-twirling villain, somewhat clunkily serves the writer's purpose of excavating forgotten homo history and to comment on the still physically and emotionally perilous lives of gay men.
The Wings Theatre run on a shoestring, pulls off a minor miracle in producing a year-round season of new plays and musicals, a sizeable proportion manifestly about the gay experience. The all-volunteer company's passion for its work is obvious and evident in the work of Artistic Director Jeffrey Corrick and his team. A precious matchstick placed in the band of a thriftstore fedora is a telling detail of L.J. Kleeman's period outfits and you can almost smell the sun-baked dust of William Ward's set and feel the heat courtesy of Eric Larson's lighting.
The actors for their part demonstrate complete commitment to their hardscrabble characters. Jason Alan Griffin's slanting, mistrustful eyes and flat Alabama drawl rings true, as does David Tacheny's wiping the mouth of a mason jar half full of moonshine after sharing it with his newfound black friend. Shiny-eyed Nick Matthews playing younger than his age is required to approach near hysteria several times during the action and will likely gain more technical facility as an actor over time, but deserves credit for finding and revealing the desperation in his character's situation. Stephen Tyrone Williams' Lucky is preternaturally smooth and philosophical given the character's circumstances, but appealing nonetheless.
The Jocker comes to the Wings with a prestigious history. It won First Prize in the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Awards and was also a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference Competition and in the South Carolina Playwrights' Festival, as well as a semi-finalist in the Bloomington Playwrights' Project. Clint Jeffries dialogue is full of authentic period slang (like "gay cat" for someone not used to riding the rails, or "slave market" for labor agency) , but it's the way he shows how easily relationships can tip from nurturing to exploitative and how frequently the roles of dominator and submitter can flip, that packs the punch here. Some of the simplest moments in the play are the most moving.
As affecting as The Jocker often is, the prochronisms, meaning those elements that could not credibly have existed at the time portrayed, tend to rankle a little. Some of the characters' talk about their situation smacks of our therapized age more than 1931. even so, The Jocker, is a powerful story compellingly told.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide