If you're gay, you're a hooker -- historically, that is. Long before Prop 8 and Don't Ask Don't Tell, "gay" was what they called hookers at the end of the 19th century in the demimonde. The more things change, the more they stay the same: these days, from Lady Gaga to Madonna, everyone's some sort of natural-born hooker, including the title character of a play that I'm co-producing (with Ramon Del Barrio) and launching with a Kickstarter campaign video:
Video created by Stacey Szewczyk
Set against the backdrop of the '90s AIDS epidemic, Natural Born Hooker dramatizes the story of one boy who, searching for a lost love, takes a journey across America's sexual landscape and ends up in L.A., where he's handed an all-access pass to a shadowy underworld. But really, Natural Born Hooker tells a never-ending story -- about how one boy becomes a man and lives to tell the tale.
"First you give it away, then you sell it, and finally you buy it all back," the boy says, summing up both his journey and gay culture's peculiar rite of passages. This give/sell/buy thesis forced me to confront an uncomfortable question faced by anyone who lives in a market economy: aren't we all natural-born hookers, to some extent, selling if not our bodies then surely our minds, opinions, or physical labor to the highest bidder?
Or maybe it's because I live in L.A., a breeding ground for hookers, that I grasped Natural Born Hooker's catchphrase. Like any big city, L.A. revolves around an axis of money, sex, and power. Hollywood then adds another layer: beauty, youth, and glamour. It's no accident that movie stars Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman chose to star as natural-born hookers in Butterfield 8, Pretty Woman, and Moulin Rouge, respectively, films that became box-office and critical successes. Basically, L.A. can turn anyone -- Bible-Belt Midwesterner, Mormon missionary boy, or Orange County surfer -- into a hooker. We've all taken a ride on that merry-go-round.
But forget all those married johns who cruise Santa Monica Boulevard. I sold Ramon Del Barrio on the idea of directing Natural Born Hooker with filmmaker Tom Kalin's (Swoon, Savage Grace) statement: "The idea of a young, gay person seroconverting because of despair, or because of substance abuse issues or because of self-inflicted homophobia -- that hurts me." (Kalin had spoken during a recent symposium of Gran Fury, an '80s activist/artist ACT-UP affinity group that reinvented the SILENCE = DEATH symbol.)
But somewhere down the line, we'd sold ourselves on the idea that "manageability" meant that the AIDS epidemic had been solved. The truth was that what we'd given away was our hard-earned history. Through dramatic narrative, Natural Born Hooker buys it all back, reminding us about what we'd rather forget -- and, if we do forget, are doomed to repeat.
The reality is that while billions of dollars have been spent on HIV education and prevention, those programs have been, by most measures, a failure, because HIV infection rates remain steady among young people, Latinos, and blacks. My friends who are long-term PWAs (persons with AIDS) speak about a reanimated health panic: government-funded HIV treatment programs (ADAP and Medicare) face cutbacks.
We urgently need to start figuring out solutions, and historically, art has sparked meaningful discussions about seemingly intractable issues. Maybe Natural Born Hooker, a play in a 99-seat theater, can start a conversation and provoke a long-overdue, solution-oriented dialogue. We plan to invite at-risk youth, people in recovery, former prisoners, and long-term PWAs to see the play for free and stay for post-show discussions. We will donate ticket revenue to local service organizations (AID for AIDS, Bienstar, and Black Aids, among others).
With just one man, one set, like Lily Tomlin/Jane Wager's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Konrad Product's Natural Born Hooker is character-driven and doesn't require elaborate staging; it seems doable. But 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan both refused to publicly acknowledge the existence of HIV and threw the responsibility of arts funding to the private sector. A tough proposition, right?
Then I heard about crowd sourcing. I'm just guessing, but these sites are probably Michele Bachmann's, Sarah Palin's, and Rick Santorum's worst nightmare (beside progressive ideas about morality and sex education, at least). Crowd sourcing becomes the art world's biggest brothel, packed with people like me, pimping our projects. Suddenly, if one wants to support plays about gay hookers in an arts- and gay-unfriendly environment, one can.
Check out Natural Born Hooker's Kickstarter here. In the next five weeks, I'll be posting real-time updates about the campaign's fundraising progress, the Natural Born Hooker Kickstater video concept, and interviews.