May 1, 2013
A Very Enduring Kiss
by Tim Murphy
Twenty-one years after David Drake's The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me gave voice to an era's anger and passion, the blond, blue-eyed showman is still living with moxie.
The summer of 1992, a one-man show opened off-Broadway that boldly dramatized the anger and passion gay and AIDS activist groups ACT UP and Queer Nation had brought to the streets. Titled The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, it was the young, blond, blue-eyed gay actor David Drake’s attempt to translate a pivotal encounter with Kramer, the godfather of AIDS activism, into a show that captured the breadth of being queer, angry and scared—and, yes, hopeful—in those dark years before effective HIV therapy or gay-rights progress. The show was a smash, attracting VIPs nightly and running a year before taking Drake around the world to perform it. (He released a movie version in 2000.)
On May 20 in New York City, the show will have a one-night, multi-actor revival to benefit Broadway Cares and The Sero Project, POZ founder Sean Strub’s campaign to turn back HIV criminalization laws throughout the United States. POZ talked with Drake, who’ll turn 50 in June, about the sudden fame he found with the show, the shame he felt around his own HIV infection in 1998, and how he has reclaimed his young, carefree spirit through a breezy new drag persona named Tawny.
So what’s the benefit revival going to be like?
I’m doing the play with a cast of 12, including André De Shields, Anthony Rapp, B.D. Wong and Rory O’Malley, who’s in Book of Mormon. Former American Ballet Theater dancer Robert La Fosse is directing. I think a group show will work well. The play’s been compared several times to For Colored Girls... in that they’re both “choreopoems,” and I’d read that play when I started writing Larry Kramer back in 1991. I was also reading a lot of poetry by Michael Klein and seeing performance art by Karen Finley, so I was thinking out of the traditional theater box. This time around, the play starts with me, then the next guy comes running in and we do the next part as a duet, then the piece about going to the gym is four guys, then the vigil sequence is six people, and so on.
The play is such a snapshot of AIDS activism at that moment, but also of early nineties gay rituals, like getting pumped up at the gym to look butch and fight off the straight oppressors. Do you still feel that way about gays and straights?
Not to the degree I felt then. The gym piece was born out of Queer Nation’s idea of claiming other spaces. We’d go to public places and “queer” them en masse and do kiss-ins, places where there’d been some kind of homophobic event. But homophobia has diminished in 20 years among straight people—including men. So the “Us and Them” feeling has diminished, too.
Does your own life feel more mixed to you?
Not that much. I’ve lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts, most of the past five years. It’s old-fashioned gay, where you come to be super-gay and hold your lover’s hand in the street. But New York certainly feels much more mixed than it used to.
Do you still go to the gym?
Not since my mid-30s. I’m still pretty fit. In P’town I get around on a bike, several miles a day. And I do sit-ups and push-ups. The gym was always intimidating to me and filled me with inferiority over being a sissy child. I really like the emergence of bear culture in the last 10 years, natural bodies and natural body hair. Young gay guys now don’t have to join gay physical culture. They can just be weirdo, alternative rock ’n’ roll people.
How did Larry Kramer come to be?
It was the summer of 1990; I was 27. I’d been doing Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom off-Broadway. I’d just joined ACT UP. I had several people in my life who were sick with AIDS, and I subsequently lost three of them, so I felt like I had to do something. But the play kept me in New York on weekends when everyone would go off to demonstrations in DC. So I started writing. I didn’t even know I was writing a show. Then in June of 1990, I was working the ACT UP booth at Gay Pride, where we sold T-shirts and buttons to support the movement, and suddenly there was Larry Kramer. I couldn’t believe it. He said, “I think I’ll sell some T-shirts, too.” He kick-started ACT UP, so we were all his children in that environment. He picked up the famous “Read My Lips” T-shirt of two guys kissing and said, “I think I’ll wear this in People magazine,” where he was going to appear. The day was June 25, his birthday, so I said, “Happy Birthday,” and told him that my birthday was June 27. He said, “That’s the date of the Stonewall riots, you know,” and I said, “Yes, I know.” Then he reached over and kissed me. So it was actually the afternoon that Larry Kramer kissed me!
Not the night! A-ha. Did you become friends?
Not really. I’d see him at ACT UP meetings, and I just didn’t know how to engage him because he meant so much to me. After the play opened, he invited me to his birthday. He was flattered I named the play for him, but he didn’t want to get too close to it, to keep it from looking like he was trying to use this sexy young guy to promote his relevance to the world. He did come to the opening night party. He was very disturbed, though, by the epilogue of the play, set in New Year’s Eve 1999. I wrote a happy ending to show that activism changes the world. And I wrote, “When we lost Mr. Kramer in 1998, it was very sad….” And he said to me: “You killed me off!” He hated that. Of course, last laugh, here we are in 2013, and he’s still alive.
Did you take out his death?
Not until the mid-’90s. We were getting closer to the millennium, and I kept pushing the epilogue further into the future for new productions around the world. I didn’t want to keep projecting his death into the world if it made him uncomfortable. It’s the only time I’ve ever changed something specific for someone.
After the play opened, you were famous for a time. There was a massive billboard of you looking down over Greenwich Village bare-chested for a whole year.
I became so well-known suddenly, and I wasn’t really prepared for it. I was auditioning for all kinds of things. But in 1992, 1993, they were scared to cast openly gay people. I was up for the movies Six Degrees of Separation, Tales of the City and To Wong Foo…, but got none of them. I did get a small part in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, I was getting fan mail from gay men at the theater. I hired an assistant to help me send them all Christmas cards. It was a very brotherly kind of show that way. Then in 1993, I went to do the show in Hollywood. It was the thing to see, and I got my entrance to a glamorous gay world including David Hockney, Barry Diller and the actor and director John Schlesinger. They all wanted to meet me, but nobody would cast me. They didn’t know what to do with me.
What about the years after the hype of the play?
I toured with that play in Edinburgh, London, Australia, through about 1995. Back in New York, they kept the show running with another actor, Eric Paeper. Watching his performance for the first time was a punch in the gut. He had dark hair, dark eyes, didn’t look like me. But people were crying at the end. I realized I’d written something that was beyond me. I didn’t know I was a real writer until that moment.
Then came my 30s. It took me years to write another show, Son of Drakula, about my Romanian roots, which I did in 2002. It wasn’t gay or activist at all. I didn’t want to write Larry Kramer Part II. My father died while I was writing it, so it became very personal, which I think was confusing for people.
You played the lead in a revival of Boys in the Band in 1996.
Unfortunately, [New York Times theater critic] Ben Brantley didn’t like me in that. He said my sense of the dramatic came from the Joan Crawford school of acting, and that stopped my career in New York. There was also a 2000 movie version of Larry Kramer, which did its little indie movie thing, showing in several LGBT festivals. But by then, the course of the epidemic had changed so much. We, the activists, had gotten what we wanted, which was effective HIV treatment. The play felt like a period piece. People didn’t want to associate with the AIDS part of being gay anymore. They wanted relief.
So, kind of a downturn for you. And then in 1998.
I seroconverted. I have a lot of shame over it because, after a break-up, I slipped and had unsafe sex a couple of times. It wasn’t drug-related; I’ve been sober since 1984. After that, I isolated for a couple of years, feeling very tainted and unlovable. I threw myself into my work and then got in a relationship for seven years and lived in Queens. Now, I’m single, but I’m not out on the prowl in my life. My peer group is all about settling down, getting married, buying houses and adopting children. I’m moved by it, but I feel outside of it all. Certainly I’d like another relationship. But I’ve always been a solo act and a gypsy.
But speaking of solo acts, in recent years, in addition to directing a lot of theater in Provincetown, you’ve debuted a very blond drag persona.
Yes, that would be Tawny. Tawny Heatherton. She’s a product of my refurbishment in Provincetown. I started getting up in drag there at this party, FagBash, and when I flipped my blond wig around one night, Tawny was born. She’s very inspired by Farrah Fawcett and Marilyn Monroe, very sexual. She’s the niece of Joey Heatherton. I just wear a babydoll and a wig, and I’m pretty. She’s helped me heal my shame and the wounds of my broken relationship. Suddenly I had sex with a bunch of guys! I realized I was still desirable even though I was HIV positive.
Yes, I have seen Tawny in action onstage, and she is quite a carefree kind of ’70s gal. What would she make of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me?
She’s not so bright, so she wouldn’t understand the hardcore politics. But she’s a freedom fighter and a hippie girl at heart. She was raised by nudists in a broken home, and she goes both ways, so I think she’d champion the fight to be sexually and emotionally free in the world.
Is the play still relevant today?
It speaks to gay shame and how to process that. That’s still relevant. Just look at the It Gets Better videos. Plus, looking at new films like How to Survive a Plague, it feels like we’re finally at a time where we can begin a dialogue about the worst years of AIDS. Younger guys want to know what happened then and how it connects to today. Enough time has passed that we can claim this thing that was so ugly and gnarly and scary for so many years. It was actually quite a heroic time.
For tickets to the May 20 benefit revival of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, click here.
Search: David Drake, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Sean Strub, Broadway Cares, The Sero Project, Richard Fosse, André De Shields, B.D. Wong, Anthony Rapp, Rory O'Malley
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