Monday, October 11, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I read Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winning play Take Me Out on a whim two summers ago and immediately fell in love with it. The play, which deals with the aftermath of Darren Lemming, a star baseball player, publicly coming out of the closet, is one of the most refreshing "coming out" stories I have ever read. Instead of focusing solely on Darren's search for Who He Is while struggling with his sexuality, Take Me Out dares to present both a gay character who not only has come to grips with his sexuality but who does not see his sexuality as a way of defining him and a plot that, in addition to charting how Darren's announcement effects the periphery characters in profound ways, explores other themes such as racism and baseball as a larger metaphor. Needless to say, Take Me Out made an enormous impression on me, so when I heard that my school's (Western Michigan University, represent!) theatre department was going to perform the play, I knew I just had to see it.

Yes, I'm not going to lie: the fact that the play features full-frontal nudity AND guys in baseball uniforms was also a huge draw for me. It was how I convinced my friend to see it with me and we both appreciated the gratuitous display of the male anatomy. But, as sweet of a treat that all was, the real reason for me to go was the chance to see it performed live. There's something about seeing a play acted out that can give a whole new meaning to the written word. Little things that stuck out, good or bad, or just did not even register, can be given a whole new meaning when performed. For me, the biggest eye opener was the character of Mason, Darren's gay business manager. Mason is Darren's only connection to the gay community, albeit it is a limited one since Mason considers himself an outcast from the gay community. What struck me most about Mason in the flesh was just how funny he is. For some reason, I never read all the pauses, stutters and backtracking Greenberg wrote for Mason as funny. He is for sure the comic relief, but I did not realize how much of a showstopper this character could be until this performance. I must give credit to the actor who portrayed him, Max Rasmussen, because he obviously put in a lot of work to make Mason come alive without sounding forced. And I really appreciate the delicate balance he took with making the character more effeminate but never once going so far as to turn him into a horrible stereotype. We laughed at his overexpressiveness and the unique way he expresses his newfound love of baseball, but the laughs were never in a cheap, "look at the funny flamer" way. A hard act to balance, but the actor did fine work doing it.

Through Darren's coming out, Mason (and many other members of the gay community) starts watching baseball as a sort of tribute or a thank you to their new hero for his "bravery" in coming out. Baseball comes to mean something else to Mason by the end of the play, but, in general, Darren thinks this is bullshit and Greenberg makes a fascinating point which really struck me the more I thought about it. Why do we, as the gay community, try so hard to find a political message for a new celebrity's coming out when, in all reality, their actions may have absolutely nothing to do with advancing the "gay cause." At one point, Darren is considering leaving baseball when the return of a racist, homophobic teammate reveals that his team isn't as supportive as he thought. Mason implores him not to, citing his importance to the gays. "Fuck the gay community" is Darren's reply. He did not come out to benefit the gay community nor does he want to be seen as some sort of martyr; he came out for himself and no one else. I think this is a particularly powerful statement and an especially timely one as a new celebrity seems to come out every month or so. Immediately, I thought of Joe McElderry and his recent coming out. As I have admitted before, I never thought much of him until his announcement, as foolish and anti-progressive that is. But it is obvious that Joe did not come out for any other reason than for himself. If by coming out he helps someone in the process, that's great, but he does not want to be a figurehead for the gay community. Like Darren, Joe's announcement gave him something he would not have otherwise: freedom. And this freedom has done wonders for Joe--look at how happy he is in his music video or when performing live now that he can be himself without any repercussions. The joy is infectious, as evidenced by the fact that I tweet "WE LOVE YOU JOE" at least every other day. For Darren, however, this freedom comes with a price. One of the biggest surprises about Take Me Out is that Darren does not expect any backlash from his coming out. He has spent his whole life being untouchable, a monolith of talent who knew no boundaries to his gifts. Over the course of the play, though, Darren is revealed to be more human than either he or anyone else every thought they would. This surprises and scares him because he has never lost control of his life like this ever before. A situation like this should never occur in real life, but it does, and Take Me Out does a fabulous job exploring it.

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