Milwaukee childhood informs playwright's budding career

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For many gay people, coming of age and coming out are synonymous. And together, these two milestones have informed much of playwright Jeffrey James Keyes’ work. 

His next play, tentatively titled “17” and set on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, tackles the “out” and “of age” themes more fully than his earlier works. His last play “The End of Days” was performed last month at the Soho Playhouse as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. 

“The characters (in “17”) are a composite of my childhood friends, but the coming-out aspect of the play has no parallel or reference to my own coming out story,” says Keyes, who grew up in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood and now lives in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. “The play has a clear-cut emphasis on brotherhood, which is something I think I longed for in my childhood friendships above intimacy or anything else.”

The play’s narrative draws on a week Keyes spent some years ago backpacking across Isle Royale, a unique natural environment where moose and wolves maintain a delicate ecological balance. The characters come from an amalgam of Keyes’ experience growing up in a Catholic school environment on Milwaukee’s South Side. Not all the experiences were bad ones, he says.

“We lived near a forest in Bay View, which is just off of Lake Michigan,” Keyes earlier told interviewer Adam Szymkowicz as part of an online series on playwrights. “I spent my childhood climbing trees, diving off the back of sailboats, chasing fireflies and dreaming big. I couldn’t think of a better place to grow up.”

But growing up gay in Milwaukee brought challenges. Supportive friends and family helped Keyes thrive, despite what he describes as a fairly typical level of abuse.

“I went to St. Veronica’s, a big Catholic grade school. I was somewhat effeminate and some of the older kids started picking on me and saying I was gay,” Keyes says. “At first I didn’t know what that meant. I was a child, after all. I gradually went from not knowing what gay meant to hiding it, and eventually owning it.”

During his freshmen year at Milwaukee’s Pius XI High School, Keyes became involved in First Stage Theater Academy, the student-oriented subsidiary of a Milwaukee theater troupe. Surrounded with like-minded individuals, his interests and sense of self began to flourish.

“I was accepted into the First Stage work study program and was able to find a home base where I could express myself and meet even more friends who didn’t give a damn about the fact that I was a boy who liked other boys,” Keyes says. “Weekends and summers at First Stage were the ultimate antidote to any challenges I faced in school during the rest of the year.”

In 1998, Keyes moved to New York City, receiving first a BA from Fordham University College at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and then an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. In addition to writing plays and television pilots, Keyes is an accomplished travel writer-photographer, serves as the New York editor of GayCities.com and is a frequent contributor to “Queerty” and “Metrosource Magazine.” Keyes’ travel writing frequently takes him out of the country one or more weeks per month.

“Travel informs my dramatic and creative writing tremendously,” Keyes says. “It was a large component of ‘The End of Days,’ which was about a travel photographer who seeks out an ex-girlfriend on the last night of the Mayan Calendar.”

Keyes credits his family’s literary heritage as an influential factor in his life. His grandfather was a second cousin to out writer Glenway Wescott, part of the “lost generation” of American writers who immigrated to Paris in the 1920s. Keyes is currently conducting research at the New York Public Library and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (where Wescott served as president) to write a new play about Wescott’s relationship with Monroe Wheeler, one of the first curators of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“My family has always encouraged me to read and study his work, and I am fascinated with the similarities between us,” Keyes says of Wescott, a Kewaskum, Wis., native who died in 1987. “I’ve become good friends with some of his friends and colleagues in the past few years, and one of my good friends even coincidentally lives in Wescott’s first New York apartment.”

Keyes hopes to move beyond the Fringe Festival with “17,” or whatever he decides to title the play. Several theater companies have expressed interest, he says. The writer also stays involved with a variety of writing groups and theater troupes, including New York Madness, the 15th Floor and the ESPA Program at Primary Stages. He also shows new works through the First Flight Festival and the Boomerang Theater Company, both in New York.