Stories of love, life and loss are highlighted in “Two Boys Kissing,” the newest production from the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus that takes place this weekend.
The show, which comes from Joshua Shank, is a fresh production that looks at the lives of five young gay men over different stories, with their stories conveyed in part by a Greek chorus of gay men who died during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Ahead of the AGMC’s performances this weekend, we spoke with composer Shank about the stories this production tells, how he got involved with adapting the piece from the book of the same name, and why stories like this are important in today’s sociopolitical climate.
Tell me about the premise of 'Two Boys Kissing.'
As the title suggests, it’s about two boys kissing. (Laughs) But it’s a little more subtle than that. It’s the story of two high school boys, Harry and Craig, who decide to break the world record for the longest kiss, in order to raise awareness for LGBT issues after, in the oratorio, one of them is attacked. And it’s actually based on a real event that happened in New Jersey in 2010. Two college-age students broke the Guinness World Record for longest kiss; they kissed for over 32 hours, 30 minutes and 47 seconds. They had to stand the entire time – there were no bathroom breaks, their lips had to be touching for the entire time.
Anyway, that’s the main story. That’s how the title characters meet, in the oratorio, based on David Levithan’s amazing book of the same name. It won a National Book Award. He’s an amazing young adult author, especially in the LGBT world.
But there are also two other stories that take place. One is an all too familiar narrative of a gay boy who’s discovered by his father, and he has a terrible, unbelievable reaction. He beats the son up, the kid runs out of the house. It makes me think of that statistic about how 40 percent of homeless youth in America are LGBT. It’s approaching half. There are students that don’t feel safe in their own homes, schools, churches or communities. So there’s that story as well. And there’s a third storyline about a young trans boy who meets a gay boy at an LGBT prom that’s being held at a community center. These two boys fall in love, and we follow the blossoming of their relationship.
All of these stories are told to the audience by a Greek chorus of gay men who lost their lives during the AIDS crisis in the 80s. So it’s perfect for a gay men’s chorus to bring that story to life.
What led you to adapt the original book in this form?
The piece was originally commissioned by the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus. They approached me – I had never heard of the book, and boy, I’m glad they did. It’s a beautiful work of literature. So they asked me to adapt it into a longer theater piece for them, specifically because of that Greek chorus that tells the story. I call it an oratorio because with the chorus part, there’s also solo narration, so there’s not really any solo singing, but each of those boys’ stories gets their own narrator or narrators, depending on how they stage it.
So I read the book and fell in love, and we got permission from David to adapt it. I adapted the work into something we thought we could stage. We had to take a few characters out, invent a few situations, conflate events together in order to make it work for an evening-length piece. Otherwise, it was going to be three hours long. (Laughs)
Where else has it been performed?
So the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus performed it two times in Minneapolis about a year ago, mid-June. And then they took it to the GALA chorus conference in Denver and performed it there. And then, just last week, there was a benefit performance by the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. They performed it at a free benefit for a local cure for wellness that does amazing work in their community.
So Atlanta will be the third city – certainly the Southern premiere – and one of the things that makes this sort of special is that Kevin [Robison, AGMC Artistic Director is] premiering a reduced instrumentation. We were looking at trying to fit instrumentalists in his budget, and things like that, and so he has taken it upon himself to re-orchestrate things for a smaller ensemble. So I’ll be very interested to see what Kevin’s done with it. I’m sure it’s going to be brilliant.
What statement does this piece make in our current sociopolitical climate?
What an easy question! (Laughs) One of the things that I really feel – so this piece is my doctoral dissertation as well, so I had to do a lot of research on the genre. What do you know about the gay men’s chorus phenomenon?
I know about the rise of these groups in the 80s as a response to the AIDS crisis.
The story is an unbelievably moving one. Most of these choirs are celebrating their 35th anniversaries right around now. Back when Harvey Milk was assassinated, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which was one of the first choruses to use “gay” in the title, they banded together, mortgaged their houses, and took a tour around the United States. It was a 10-, 12-city tour. In every city, they left a gay men’s chorus in their wake, just from inspiration. There’s one here in Austin, where I live. You can list off more than a dozen now. And a lot of the history of LGBT choruses, a lot of the stories we carry with us as LGBT individuals, there can be some amount of brokenness and negative things that may or may not have happened over the course of our lives.
But this story is a positive one. There are some sorrowful moments in this, but it’s a hopeful story of moving towards the future, and this chorus of gay men are these sort of immortal protectors of the LGBT youth that come after them. And in this sociopolitical environment, I keep hearing Harvey’s words – “You’ve gotta give them hope.” You know? That’s hopefully what the piece ultimately does.
[photo via AGMC]