What a Wonderful World!
Shows like Todd's Secret, by young Mike Dawson, create alternate worlds that are sometimes more accepting than our own.
Saw a reading of a new musical called Zanna, Don't! at the Amas Six O'Clock Musical Theatre Lab. Tim Acito has written the book, music, and lyrics for a new show that takes place in a fascinating world. Steve, the captain of the football team, is in love with Mike, the captain of the chess team-and Steve's mighty grateful for the attention, for chess is much more popular than football at this particular school. Mike admires Steve when the jock says he's going out for the school musical; Steve shrugs and says, "What kind of high school would this be if the captain of the football team didn't go out for the school musical?" As it turns out, Mike plans to try out, too, and not only do the two expect to land fat parts, they also anticipate that they'll be elected King and King of the prom.
Meanwhile, Kate-cute as a cute button-is the trainer for the school's mechanical bull riding team. As she tells Roberta, "When I see you straddling that bull, I feel a spiritual connection." Soon, these two are a blissfully happy couple. They expect to be elected Queen and Queen of the prom after they also audition for the school musical, an original work that wonders whether heterosexuals should be allowed into the army.
I love shows that take us into their own little unique world-especially if that world is a much nicer and accepting one than our own. I was charmed the first time I saw Boy Meets Boy. This pastiche of '30s musicals did have its naughty moments (part of the title song went, "Boy meets boy; boy loses boy; but boy gets boy in the end"), but it was set in a terrific world. In a nightclub scene, we saw a guy fox-trotting with a guy, a woman fox-trotting with a woman, and even a guy fox-trotting with a woman. Peaceful coexistence among the sexualities! I loved it.
Another play that you've never heard of also beautifully mined this tricky terrain: Todd's Secret by Mike Dawson starts outside a high school, where two students are talking sports. When they ask Todd if he saw the game last night and he confesses that he didn't, they call him some nasty names that wont be repeated here. Suffice to say that they question his sexuality. After they leave, Todd looks at us, and plaintively confides his secret: "I know I'm different, nothing like other kids," he says meekly. "I've known what I was ever since I was a little boy. I've always been interested in ... in...groceries. I know it's wrong," he hastily adds. "It's nowhere in the Bible. But I don't care. I want to be a grocer."
Luckily, Todd surreptitiously meets one of his own kind, a lad who has the same proclivities, and the two clandestinely work in a grocery store after school. Once their shifts are over, they sit around recalling grocery store commercials. "Someone made a store just for me," croons Todd; his pal then chimes in with "Food Emporium! Food Emporium!" Both wistfully recall favorite moments in their budding careers. ("Remember the first time you ever gave receipt?" Todd asks) and then they engage in a little grocery comparison. "Look at how big mine is!" says the friend, slowly taking out a tall can of beer from a bag. "Oh, yeah? Mine's bigger than yours," retorts Todd, as he displays one of those enormous Hi-C.
Unfortunately, the boys are caught in the act by Todd's parents. When Todd's father sees what his son has become, the poor, humiliated dad has heart palpitations. Mom says, "You're killing your father with what you're doing!" But after Todd's father is tended to-and Todd is made to promise that he'll never see his friend again-the defeated lad looks at us even more plaintively than before. "Will I ever find someone else who understands?" he asks tearfully. From the wings enters one of those neighborhood toughs from the beginning of the play who had chided Todd for not appreciating sports. "Yes, Todd," he says. "I understand. I have to confess. I love groceries, too. And while I'm confessing, let me admit something else. I'm gay!"
I well remember how the audience of high school kids watching Todd's Secret screamed in delight as the word and concept that had been so carefully veiled all performance long was finally revealed. And I'll never forget hearing those high schoolers go "Oooh!" in shock and disgust immediately after, when Todd turned on the boy. "You're gay!?" he snarled. "You're disgusting! Get away from me!" Yes, the kid they'd come to care about turned out to be someone worth hating. Dawson deftly pulled the rug out from under them and, in the process, showed me that high schoolers were more tolerant then I would have guessed.
Why was the audience full of young people? Because Todd's Secret was part of the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival, held at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. Mike Dawson was all of 16 when he wrote the play. After the performance, I was first in line to shake his hand, but he soon disappointed me when he said didn't plan to be a playwright, but a cartoonist instead. This was 1994, so he's 24 now. Mike, it's still not too late. Come back! We need you!
By the way, Zanna, Don't! turned out to be terrific. And in case you're wondering about the title, there is one character I haven't yet mentioned. Zanna is a high school girl who has a magic wand that helps prod shy kids into falling in love. In this presentation, she was played by a male actor, one Caesar Samayoa-though the lad wore a baby pink embroidered T-shirt and four-inch platform shoes with hot pink trim, and had glossed his lips and tweezed eyebrows. He was part of a talented cast that made me feel as if I were watching the Future Stars of America. So maybe the Amas Six O'Clock Musical Theatre Lab is worth checking out. Call 212-563-2565 and or check out the website www.amasmusical.org for a schedule of upcoming shows, including a show called Sex (March 24-26). I hope that it, too, takes us to a wonderfully tolerant sexual world.