Talking with David Drake
Performer and Playwright of
'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me'
by Owen Keehnen
This interview initially appeared in 'Out' in Albuquerque (5/94)
David Drake is a multi-hyphenated boy wonder. At 30 the playwright-actor-activist has already won an Obie Award for best performance ion an Off Broadway play for his explosive creation 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me'. The play is a perceptive, lyrical, political, in-your-face, and affirming series of interconnected monologues about various facets of gay life; cruising, working out, activism, etc. The play is now out in book form and the voice and energy literally leaps from the page. The title doesn't refer to an actual smooch but to the night Drake went to see Kramer’s 'The Normal Heart' and was awakened to gay consciousness and pride.
Mr. Drake whose real name is (would I lie) David Drakula (!!) has appeared in such plays as 'Pageant' and 'Vampire Lesbians of Sodom'. Since his successful playwright-performance debut he has appeared in several films as well. Over coffee we recently discussed his career, his play, the sissy boy stigma, and Hollywood.
How did 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me' come about?
It came out of my involvement in the grass roots activism movement. I thought I had very little to offer activism, I wasn't political in that way. I was a New York Off Broadway and regional actor. A list came around at a meeting for the Act-Up talent show at The Pyramid Club in The East Village. I was doing 'The Vampire Lesbians of Sodom' at the time and I thought, "OK, I'll do something" so I wrote 'Tommy Bobby Sherman' inspired by Sandra Bernhard and it was a smash. Then I started writing these pieces that came out very quickly and I knew I needed to do these at a performance space somewhere. I saw this as my talent to offer, my performances for benefits. I started doing these and people started following me around.
And these pieces grew into the play. Have critics been comparing you?
Though I've never read it, it's been compared to Ntozake Shange's 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf', a poetic cadence, and also from within the black woman experience - it was from an authentic place and tells the audience "This is for colored girls"… mine says "This is the night Larry Kramer kissed me. This is gay in-your-face okay? It's political, it's queer, it's me, and look - I'm happy." Which is different from camouflaging or explaining homosexuality to a straight audience.
So your intent was more expressive than educational?
The sound quality of your play is very strong, it almost becomes a chant at times.
All the pieces have a rhythm and were written that way. With the book, one of the biggest challenges was capturing on the page what was on the stage. The biggest disappointment was '12" Single' because it's a rap, and the music is missing.
Has Larry Kramer seen the show?
No he hasn't. He saw a workshop of it when I was doing three pieces 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me', 'Why I Go To The Gym', and 'The Way We Were'. So he knew what the content was. He was supposed to come for my final New York performances but he got snowed in! I do know he has a poster of the show hanging in his house.
Speaking of him, tell me about the benefit reading of 'The Normal Heart' on Broadway.
God, it was such a dream come true. It was a benefit for Act-Up. I played Tommy Boatwright. Barbra Streisand introduced it, and the cast featured incredible people like Stockard Channing and Eric Bogosian. It was a very glamorous evening.
More than any medium the stage has best captured the lives of gay men in a time of AIDS with substantial depth. Is there a reason for that other than the financial feasibility of play production?
Money is definitely a part of it. That's also where a lot of gay people go. Gay men have artistic power in the theater. They have some levels of control that they do not have in Hollywood. Also, in the theater it is the writer who is respected, and that's not the case in Los Angeles.
Congratulations on the Obie Award, what's it look like?
Thanks. It's a big certificate with calligraphy and of course it hangs on my wall.
Something unique and powerful in your play is that it deals directly with sissy boy pride.
All this closeted and passing bullshit makes me want to scream. The argument loses me when it begins "we’re just like everybody else", because there are a lot of people who aren't like everyone else, a lot who can't be, and a lot who don't want to be…and that's their right. Sissy boy pride runs throughout the play. '12" Single' is about that, and erotifying the oppressor and the hatred of things effeminate within us. It comes down to gender role, if you step out of your coded biological societal acceptable gender role and behavior and start mixing things up - it quickly becomes about possibility. If just for a while we could be less defensive, protective, and apologetic we'd realize there's something beautiful inside whether that's an effeminacy thing for men or a butch thing for women. This is also where the gay movement ties to the women's movement and women who are bitches because they are actually aggressive, that they have a dream and are pursuing it despite the odds. That whole sissy boy aspect of the show is the least acknowledged critically and the most acknowledged in the letters I get.
That's an interesting discrepancy. Don't you think that is reflective of the whole shame perception of sissydom?
Exactly. I'd never seen a gay child on stage, that's why I wanted to play one, and why I wrote one. I think it's because children aren't self-pitying, they're still amazed despite oppression, but they get crushed, only the boy in this play isn't crushed yet.
Tell me about your work-in-progress -- 'Faith, Hope, and Sodomy'.
It's more character voice oriented, but it's been slow going because my energy has been focused in a lot of different directions.
Do you have the sophomore jitters?
Yes! Yes I do. I have eighteen times the amount of notes for this play that I had for 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me'. I keep self-censoring. I have to work through a lot of "what will this look like", "what will critics think" sort of things. It's a matter of getting on track. I do have some really good things done though.
Your movie career is taking off as well. You were in 'Philadelphia', and will be seen in 'It’s Pat' and 'Naked in New York'.
I was on location a month for 'Philadelphia' but only ended up with a bit. I got cut from 'Naked in New York'. I was up for the lead costar in 'It’s Pat', but they gave it to Dave Foley. But they still wanted me in the movie…as a hairdresser!
I said, "Wait", what do you mean? I said I'm openly gay and in some circles I'm known and respected for it. I don’t want straight people in mini-malls across the country laughing at me. I won't do those kinds of parts. So we came up with sort of Soho New York techno nightmare with a Caesar haircut, big chains, big rubber gloves, and that's the way I did it, as a Dr. Frankenstein thing "creating". The character was androgynous in that way. We had to discuss it at length, but they were very sensitive and that's unusual.
You also well be making a movie called 'Objects' this May in Chicago.
It's a costarring part with Ann Cusack. It's a romantic farce and buddy picture. It's a gay character and a straight woman and it's about a struggling art gallery in Peoria called 'Objects' and a scheme to save the gallery because they have no money and they owe on the rent. Ann is very sensual, pretty, smart, and I find that sort of woman in a lot of gay circles, but I've never seen that relationship comedically or tenderly explored or presented without it being a fag hag commentary. Steven Diller is the writer/director and Michael Kaplan is the producer. I respect them a great deal and I'm very excited about it.
It sounds like a wonderful project. Do you find it odd that this pro-queer vehicle has led to opportunities within the film industry that is often blatantly homophobic?
It hasn't opened as many doors as I would have liked. The play has gone through four options, and all fell through. If I was Eric Bogosian I would have had a deal with HBO the minute the show opened. But my play is very threatening and it's sensual. American Playhouse said, "You’re very talented, but we can’t put this on TV". Great Performances said the same. I have things in the play like "Mmm, get inside of me…" and that's very scary for them.
In closing I must know, was being the headline of Liz Smith's column the fantasy it's cracked up to be?
It was fabulous! It was amazing! I mean, the fucking headline of Liz Smith's column!