Playwright Oliver Mayer has returned to the boxing ring.
Members Only follows the narratives of people of color forging their racial and sexual identities in the early 1980s. The play offers a sequel to the controversial 2004 play Blade to the Heat, which received both heavy praise and criticism for featuring queer characters in simulated sex scenes on stage.
Blade to the Heat followed Latino boxer, Pedro Quinn as he struggled with his sexuality after being publicly accused of being gay in the 1950s. Madonna bought the rights to the script over a decade ago, suggesting she might turn it into a film.
Members Only continues Quinn’s story more than 20 years later. It follows the surviving characters, many of whom are played by the original Blade actors, living in New York City during the “golden age” of boxing. Quinn chose a young woman, Lone, as his protégé during a time when women barely had any recognition in sports. The two form a sort of solidarity around how they’re excluded from society.
The play mirrors much of Mayer’s own life coming to terms with his multiracial identity and experiences in boxing culture as a teenager. Mayer felt that now was the time to create a sequel during both an increase of exclusion and community building for queer people and people of color alike
INTO spoke with Mayer about his drive to create this play in the times of Trump, queer visibility, and the steady decline of boxing.
Members Only comes nearly 25 years after Blade to the Heat. Why do you feel that now was the right time to produce this play?
I set the play in the past precisely to try to make sense of our shared present, and to imagine a future in which we might avoid stepping in the most egregious muck and doo-doo. When I wrote Blade to the Heart, Magic Johnson was just coming out as HIV positive, and the nation and world could not anymore ignore the scourge of AIDS. Even though Blade is set in 1959, a lot of smart people could tell that I was reflecting the era of AIDS. Now, all these years later, I’ve taken the surviving characters up to 1982, the moment that the virus was named. And even though I’ve done my research about that moment in time, my real concerns and passions are all about 2018. Hopefully, we can watch and learn what to do — and not to do — in this very scary immediate American present.
What do you hope that Members Only will teach its audience?
As far as we have come in terms of celebrating identity and breaking down boxes, we have also backslid egregiously — particularly among folks of color — when it comes to being informed and compassionate with one another. This is a cruel, horrible moment in our nation’s history; but the only way out is for us to be good to one another in a very intentional way. Also, my lead character Pedro Quinn is what I call a lonely warrior — someone who didn’t ask to be a leader, but whose actions and choices mean so much to others. He and the other characters in Members Only have no idea that they are living on the very edge of disaster, and yet — perhaps because of the spirits that are also part of the play — they must walk a tightrope between light and shadow. I think a lot of us do that every day. I don’t wish to call attention to it, because if we look up or down we might fall off the tightrope! Better to just keep our eyes and ears forward and keep stepping.
Why boxing and not another sport?
I boxed as a teenager, and it changed my view on life. I learned respect, a sense of inner calm as well as humor, and the essential knowledge that there are worse things than taking a punch. But I also realized that the culture of boxing is vicious, binary, cisgender to a fault, xenophobic, and based in fear. To this day it’s near impossible for a known boxer to come out. Blade and Members Only are fictions, and I’m really sorry that I had to invent Pete Quinn. Of course there have been gay boxers, but for their own survival, they have had to stay quiet and in shadow. But plays can let in the light of day.
How does the play respond to identity politics, especially the new forms of identity politics that have flourished in the past few years?
The key to Members Only is a character named Lone, a female boxer before Lucia Rijker or Laila Ali, when women were shunned, bullied or worse for even trying to break into the world of boxing. Quinn sees himself in Lone, and he protects as long as he can from the cruelty and ignorance of those around him. They are kindred spirits, lonely warriors shattering barriers at great personal peril. But remember, the play is set in 1982 New York City, a time when unisex style was in high fashion and when people like Basquiat and Laurie Anderson were opening art and culture to the very new forms that we enjoy today. People are going to see themselves on stage — making love, making art, fighting for what they love — then and now.
Many reviewers complimented the “remarkable” gym set of Blade to the Heat. Will Members Only be as focused on the ring?
We have an extraordinary set for Members Only, and there are indeed three fights that occur in the play. But you will be surprised by all the other settings that we create. We bring back the age of disco with a club called Xenon’s, and we also bring back the bath clubs of Lower Manhattan. But this play has the same DNA as Blade did, and there’s blood and sweat on the floor and walls, testament to the constant struggle these hybridized, hyphenated Americans must go through every day of their lives. So yeah, I’d say this is just as remarkable!
You can catch Members Only at the LATC through November 18th.