Phone sex, complicated gay love and a hand across two pandemic eras are just some of the connections to watch for in Robert Chesley’s Jerker.
Don’t let the fact that the one-act play was written in 1986 lull you into believing its themes are distant. And don’t let its long-winded subtitle – “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” – fool your expectations for simply a light, sexy gay play.
Jerker is all of those things, but it is also deeply moving and resonant to today. Audiences can see for themselves when the play streams online April 30 – May 2 from Out Front Theatre Company.
It’s about time, Director Paul Conroy said.
“The story, to me, feels both timeless and timely,” Conroy told Project Q Atlanta. “This is a show that is, at its core, about two gay men making a connection when there is no physical ability to do so.”
“When looking for shows to produce for streaming for our audiences this was the perfect choice since so many of us have stayed distant from others over the past year,” he said. “Not in the exact same way as the 1980s, but over the past year we have seen that being physically close to people could also turn deadly.”
Sexy is as sexy does
Jerker was one of the first plays written during and about the AIDS crisis, and it takes an explicit, sex-positive look at gay life, Conroy said.
“We are not shying away from any of the language in the play and producing it exactly as the author originally intended it,” he said. “These characters are very sex-positive, and we want to celebrate that as both parts of their world and part of our community.”
The explicit nature of the content attracted Tyshawn Gooden to his role as JR, the actor said.
“Honestly, the vulgarity and the deep content of the show drew me in after my initial read,” Gooden said. “I always love a good challenge in a show and in a character, and this script was the ultimate challenge.”
“I’ve never read anything like this before, so I knew I really wanted to be a part of it.”
Greg Piccirilli plays Bert, and he agreed. Gay sex is important to depict in media and the arts, he said.
“I am so excited to do this show because it is so personal and intimate,” Piccirilli said. “Also being able to show the world a different side of sex (phone sex) on stage is unique. Gay people being sexual is something that needs to be shown.”
As enticing and affirming as the sexual aspect is, Jerker about so much more. Come for the sex as they say, but stay for the connections, Conroy said.
“You’ll see that these two men develop a deep commitment to each other,” Conroy continued. “They are definitely as committed as we are committed to our partners, our friends and our community as a whole.”
It’s hard to miss the correlation to COVID times, too.
“Emotions can blossom and collapse in the best of circumstances, and also in the worst. Just because we are physically distant from the people we love doesn’t mean that that sense of need and caring goes away,” Conroy said.
Phone sex, though? Isn’t that a little dated? If it was set on Grindr, you would think it was 2021, he asserted.
“There are themes of not being completely honest in how these characters present themselves when it is anonymous, and that is something that still happens to this day,” the director said.
One of the characters engages in behavior he knows is risky, and that aspect of life hasn’t changed for some people either, Conroy said.
“I think the past year we saw many gay men acting in the same way,” he said. “The attitude of, ‘It doesn’t impact me directly,’ or ‘I’m healthy so I’ll be fine,’ was the philosophy of many men in the ‘80s, and some of them suffered immeasurable amounts because of it.”
A place for us
The theater itself is still recovering from an epic pandemic pivot. The online-only production of Jerker leads into more streaming content and special events, plus an expected return to in-person shows this fall, Conroy said.
Out Front is Atlanta’s only LGBTQ theater company. Every production is always by, for and about queer stories. That distinction matters for audiences as well as for casts and crews, the Jerker principals said.
“It is everything to be surrounded by gay people for this production,” Piccirilli said. “There is a level of unspoken understanding, and we are able to discuss similar experiences that are specific to our community without having to add disclaimers or tip toe around things.”
The all-queer experience was new for Gooden.
“It’s an experience I never knew I needed until it happened,” Gooden gushed. “Telling a queer story, surrounded by a queer cast and team simply feels right to me.”
“The entire team cares about the authenticity of this story and these characters and what they have lived and are living through.”
Both actors heaped praise on the director, and Conroy threw it right back on them.
“This is not easy material. It has very graphic sexual language and is also emotionally draining,” Conroy said. “I’m impressed that both Tyshawn and Greg jumped headfirst into the material and have been unwavering in their commitments to be truthful with the material and give it the attention it deserves.”
The show takes an emotional toll, but it’s worth it, Gooden said.
“It has so much heart that seems to just come out of nowhere,” he said. “This is easily the most vulnerable and honest show I’ve ever gotten to do. Audiences are not going to be able to hold back their laughter, screams and tears as they watch.”
Unlike his co-star, Piccirilli already boasts Out Front projects on his growing resume, including the COVID-truncated run of the intense Warplay last March. He jumped at the chance to do another show with the company.
“Out Front Theatre [deserves] props for time and time again staying true to their mission of bringing queer plays to Atlanta while also collaborating with queer artists,” Piccirilli said. “I love this theater.”
Out Front Theatre Company streams “Jerker” April 30 – May 2. Visit their website.