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A former junkie's life inspires punk theatre
Although J.Stephen Brantley stars in his new play as a queer 40-something punk and recovering junkie, the piece is not autobiographical. "My own story as a queer punk battling addiction was with heroin, not crystal meth," clarifies the actor-playwright. "Heroin users tend to be less interesting onstage. Because they tend to fall asleep."
Still,The Jamb is infused with details from Brantley's time living in New York City during the punk movement of the 1980s and 90s. A coming-of-middle-age comedy about two men grappling with what it means to be a gay American in 2008, the play is having its world premiere through September 17 at the Kraine Theater—in the heart of the East Village where it's set.
"[The Kraine] is half a block from the bar where the characters met," says Brantley. "It was the right space for this play. We could've done it in a shinier space in Midtown, but we like that room because it's dingy. It feels like the East Village."
In fact, producing company Horse Trade Theater Group operates at both the Kraine and Under St. Marks, where a homeless Brantley used to squat. "There was a summer when I was able to bust in there and crash for a while," he remembers. "I'd go in there late at night and pass out, and they'd kick me out when rehearsals began. At the time I wasn't thinking much about my career in theatre. I'd left it behind and was trying to survive."
The East Village, says Brantley, is the kind of place that a former homeless punk can return to and stage his life story. He adds that writing The Jamb was an act of self-reinvention: "It's been a full circle for me. And now to come back and do this play, and be playing not the junkie but the straight-edge guy, has been a way to look back on that."
Brantley plays Roderick, a reformed punk trying to convince his best friend Tuffer (Nic Grelli) to go clean as well. Representing the new, more liberated generation of LGBT rebels is college-aged Brandon (Todd Flaherty), whose talk of marriage equality and Gay-Straight Alliance clubs confounds the older men. "In so much of this country gay guys can actually grow up well adjusted," says Brantley. "It's not the battle guys my age had. We fought for that, for kids to be able to grow up free of all the pain we endured. And yet it's also really frustrating when kids don't understand! That's part of the fabric of The Jamb: being a freedom fighter then not feeling appreciated for it."
The play gives vivid life and specificity to these characters even as it demonstrates the intellectual territory the queer and punk worlds share. "In both movements you're talking about being defined as 'other' and looking for a kind of freedom," Brantley says. "Good punk is smart punk. It's inherently working class and highly political. Its aims were very much what the early gay rights movement wanted as well: acceptance, but on individual terms. It's not about assimilation, but progress."
The Jamb's highly theatrical format channels that spirit as well. Brantley says he and director David Drake "wanted to do something not just about punk, but like punk. How do you stage a play as punk?" The production, which includes slapstick fight choreography, characters calling sound cues, and angry monologues addressed to the audience, feels like a downtown rock concert, with all of the live mayhem and even danger that presents. "I'm a big fan of all that Brechtian stuff," says Brantley. "It annoys some people but it's sort of meant to—in the same way punk is meant to rub you the wrong way a little bit."
In other words, audience members hoping to sit back and enjoy a passive rather than immersive experience in the theatre should be warned. The Jamb lives somewhere in between. "What I love about theatre, I love about punk rock," Brantley says. "You do it yourself, you get it done, you walk the edge. That's what makes it meaningful.
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Jamb. Go here to browse our current offers for theatre, dance, and concerts.
Photos by Hunter Canning. Top photo: J. Stephen Brantley and Carole Monferdini.