Queer Acts at the First Person Festival

Two shows, three men and a few universal stories about being gay today

Thomas Choinacky and John Jarbo (photo by Mary Tuomanen)

When the First Person Festival kicks off next week (Nov. 10-20), rest assured that there will be an LGBT presence. Both Thomas Choinacky and R. Eric Thomas will be performing two queer-inspired shows. Choinacky shares the stage with John Jarboe in Beaut (Jarbo recently channeled Edith Piaf at the Wilma) in two one-man shows about growing up gay in Catholic Midwestern households. Not only do their tales weave a compelling tapestry of the coming out experience, but they were inspired by a poem by B.H. Fairchild called “Beauty.”

“The poem hints at this relationship that men have with the word ‘beauty,'” explains Choinacky, “the inability to say it or reference it. The poem started a discourse between the two of us. The poem is also steeped in Midwestern life, which we also related to, as we both grew up in Midwestern homes – John from Michigan and myself from Indiana. These early conversations brought us to play with our similar and unique experiences growing up, and how we individually relate with the word.”

During the show, Choinacky and Jarbo are separated by a thin white cloth as they tell their stories. “This separation creates this sense of aloneness as we tell our stories of growing up,” says Choinacky, “on either side of the space. We are using shadows against the cloth to interact with each other, as well. The shadows match this more abstract relationship with growing up as gay men, working off the idea that there are others going through this as well, and as teenagers we saw it as an unattainable thing that we thought was out of reach, a kind of disconnect.”

Choinacky admits the show has both dramatic and comedic elements throughout, though it really delves into how each of the men faced their fears about being different. “Sometimes the ridiculous failures to be ourselves or to disguise ourselves, which were hard then, are now hilarious stories to look back upon,” Choinacky admits. And just as the poem touches on a father’s and son’s reaction to beauty, so do the actors. “The poem has a lot of material about a son examining his father and other male figures’ reaction to beauty, that it isn’t manly to say words like beauty. As a gay man, there can be the generalization – and at least in my family – it can be seen that being gay is not right, less manly. So Beaut is taking this all by the horns.”

R. Eric Thomas (photo by James Carminati)

R. Eric Thomas also explores what it means to be gay – and online – during the festival in Will You Accept This Friend Request? Thomas was inspired to write the one-man show after a few encounters he had, including one with the first gay person he met at Columbia University.

“I started thinking about how storytelling and Facebook have combined in my life to help me to make sense of who I am, help me present myself to the world and help me connect to people,” he says. “The internet and social media have been an integral part of my coming out and coming of age as a gay man. I first ventured out of the closet on AOL chatrooms; I’ve met pretty much every boyfriend I’ve had on OkCupid; I’ve stalked every attractive man I’ve ever seen on Facebook. I talk about these things and specific experiences in trying to make a connection offline, like joining a gay softball league (only to find out it’s nothing like Broken Hearts Club… and they actually want you to, like, hit and catch and stuff).”

But that doesn’t mean it’s a gay show. Instead, it’s a show about multiple identities, says Thomas, “and my identities as a gay, black, cardigan-wearing college dropout, late-night Facebooking 30-year-old. Which is to say, it’s universal.”

For a full list of shows and tickets during the First Person Festival, click here.