Two gay men begin a phone-sex relationship against the terrifying backdrop of the emerging AIDS epidemic. Although their physical contact is limited to sound waves, the couple’s erotic talk sessions lead to a deeper connection.
That’s the simple premise of the 1986 play “Jerker.” Boulevard Theatre artistic director Mark Bucher was moved by Robert Chesley’s script when he first saw “Jerker” at Milwaukee’s now-defunct Theatre X. He decided instantly that he wanted to direct it someday, he says.
That was about two decades ago. Now Bucher’s longtime wish is coming true. He’s directing a concert reading of the play that runs Sept. 18–22 at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. The production marks the first collaboration between the two organizations.
Chesley originally saddled his 90-minute, one-act play with the imposing title “Jerker, or The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty.” But the play’s been known as simply “Jerker” since opening at a Los Angeles theater in October 1986. Together with “The Normal Heart” and “As Is,” “Jerker” is considered one of the definitive plays of the early AIDS era – a time of ignorance, panic and political indifference that’s hard for today’s young gay men to fathom.
For Bucher, 56, “Jerker” is more timely than the other two pioneering AIDS plays. The difference, he says, is partly in the way that “Jerker” uses telecommunications as the basis for a relationship – a phenomenon that digital technology has made even more prevalent.
“In 1986, you had to go out to a bar and engage in conversation to get laid,” Bucher remembers. “What Chesley is talking about is the ability to work through the surface and actually develop a caring, affectionate connection” with a virtual stranger, he says.
“In an age of Grindr and Internet sex, there’s this idea of being connected – but we are more disconnected than ever before,” Bucher adds. “Jerker” has become more powerful over time because it depicts two men using technology to create a deep connection, he says.
Bucher says “Jerker” also works more fully than the other AIDS plays of its era because it focuses on the two men’s relationship. Its approach is simple and direct, avoiding polemical rhetoric.
“This script talks around the politics of the time,” Bucher says. “By taking a more oblique approach, (its) political power is stronger than those other scripts, which are really in your face.”
While the human heart might be the true center of the play, it’s another organ that gets the most mentions. The sexual content of “Jerker” is highly explicit, making the play unsuitable for audiences under 18.
Bucher says he purposefully chose to present “Jerker” as a reading rather than a staged production complete with full frontal nudity and the rest of what comes with a play whose action revolves around masturbation. Bucher says his strategy will force the audience to focus beneath the surface.
“I didn’t want a live sex show,” Bucher says. “In Chicago, they did it with porn stars, and they actually acted it out. (In my production) you start to listen to the characterization and the meaning behind the words.”
Bucher hopes that his presentation will not distract from the play’s testament to the universal yearning for “connectedness.” Instead, he hopes to underscore the meaning of a work that critics have called a love story for the AIDS era.
“This is a beautiful play, and (it’s) not limited to the term ‘gay play,’ because it’s about human interaction,” Bucher says. “It’s as much a gay play as ‘Raisin in the Sun’ is only a black play. It’s a timeless love story. Audiences who get past the adult language will be rewarded by a tremendous theatrical experience.”
Of course, “Jerker” also bears witness to the plague-like devastation of the incipient AIDS epidemic – as well as serving as a reminder that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is still impacts millions of gay men.
“I think for younger people, (“Jerker”) obliquely addresses what a different time 1985 was,” Bucher says. “But they should remember that HIV has not gone away. Some would argue that it has morphed into something more insidious. People today think they can just take a cocktail of pills” and be done with it.
But Bucher hopes to remind audiences that HIV is hardly that simple.
As WiG reported several months ago, the Boulevard Theatre is investigating the possible sale of its current building at 2250 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. in Bay View and becoming an itinerant theatrical group. Bucher says the production of “Jerker” at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center “will allow us to explore off-site and satellite performance venues.” At the same time, the “relationship hopefully will introduce new patrons to the center.”
“This is truly a synergistic relationship,” Bucher says. “We’re very thankful to the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center and to the Milwaukee Arts Board, which is underwriting this production through a grant.”