Chicago Playwright Philip Dawkins Authors a Zodiac of AIDS
by Sean Black
Exiting a cab in front of The Victory Gardens Biograph Theater just south of Chicago’s Boystown district, one of the nation’s largest LGBT communities, I am greeted by an emerging playwright who is taking the Windy City by storm. A rising young talent among a bastion of Chicago gay-wrights, Philip Dawkins sports a wickedly handsome snarl flanked by the spirals of his hyper-coiffed stache. His piercing eyes and charismatic flair are as alluring as his new smash-hit play, The Homosexuals, which has been recently nominated for a Jeff Award for Best New Work–Play. “I’m still trying to organize all my feelings surrounding the experience,” Dawkins says, referring to the play’s success. The new stage drama has just been extended twice to rave reviews and critical acclaim and Dawkins is pleased with its popularity. Most of all, however, he is grateful for how well it is being received by mixed audiences regardless of sexual orientation: “Perhaps the most encapsulating word for me right now would be ‘fortunate.’”
The accolades are important to Dawkins; however, the core of his intentions resides with the play’s ability to end complacent attitudes and to further change world views. Dawkins along with artitistic director Bonnie Metzgar and many of the cast members of The Homosexuals belong to a production group known as About Face Theatre. About Face has produced over thirty original productions, including The Homosexuals, and has aligned itself with creating innovative plays with the hopes of advancing national dialogues on gender and sexual identity issues. It is geared to both challenge and entertain audiences not only in Chicago but around the globe. The Homosexuals is a heartwarming yet poignant drama that takes aim at the complex and pervasive realities common to the gay community and runs chronologically backwards during the first decade of this century. Earmarking highly memorable moments of this new millennium, from the rise of President Obama to 9/11, the play entertains from beginning to end. It’s a rich and soulful coming-of-age depiction that bluntly unravels the intimate entanglements of six gay men and their female cohort and confidant.
“It’s a play exploring friendship through the lens of sex,” says Dawkins, “and I don’t know how you could have a modern play exploring relationships through sex without including people affected by HIV/AIDS.” In The Homosexuals, Dawkins concocts a series of important lessons for the play’s protagonist Evan (played brilliantly by Patrick Andrews), a young gay man struggling with his own inherent homophobia as he evacuates the intolerant maelstrom of his suburban hometown. Rolling into the “big city” with nowhere to go, he finds himself amidst a circle of friends, who take him under their wings. Through clever dialogue and colorful character development reminiscent of fellow Chicagoan, the great Tennessee Williams, Dawkins literally opens the door to Evan’s boudoir and shoves us right in. Evan’s tribe evolves quickly with each member forging a lasting impression during his tumultuous quest for acceptance and self-love. “Each scene has to do something to Evan to push him along on his journey,” emphatically states Dawkins, who added an HIV-positive character to his repertoire of juicy catalysts. British Mark played by the handsome Benjamin Sprunger, who contributed his own specific ideas on how he wanted his character portrayed, is introduced and soon disrobed down to boxer briefs. A long-awaited tryst between himself and the randy Evan unfolds. The chemistry between the two escalates to scintillating levels, but is then quickly tempered with the sobering complications of tricking. Although neither carries protection, the fact that both are tops redirects the titillating romp toward an amiable lecture on the casualties of reckless behavior such as unprotected intercourse. “In that scene I had to figure out what British Mark was doing to Evan and it turned out to be not to have sex with him,” notes Dawkins. An additional twist allows British Mark, who had been buoyed up earlier in the decade by this same surrogate family upon the discovery of his own seroconversion, to pay it forward and give back to the newcomer in the group. “I took writing this character very seriously and consulted many friends of positive status,” states Dawkins. “It was important for me because I have seen how rough it has been for them when they found out that they were infected.”
Along with writing evocative scripts Dawkins teaches theater to aspiring youths. He is challenged with the ability to interface with many of Chicago’s impressionable, at-risk creatives. “I learn a lot from my students in many regards but on the flip side I see and hear things that absolutely horrify me. There is this immature and naïve romanticism with sex, both gay and straight, and as an educator I see a lot of teens acting really cavalierly about early pregnancy and the HIV/AIDS pandemic and that freaks me out. It really makes me angry.” In order to get at pressing issues Dawkins has his students fabricate conflict scenarios for their characters. “Many of my students, when acting out scenes involving AIDS, use the references as jokes or insults like a person who has AIDS is dirty or slutty. It troubles me that the references aren’t being used in a cautionary manner but rather as put-downs and slurs,” he says. “I try to redirect their focus by suggesting an opportunity to talk to them through their characters. I ask them what choices could they make in their imaginary situations in order to achieve a better outcome. I find this creative process of roleplay and acting promotes healthy conversation, which I hope will in turn circumvent off-stage, real-life tragedies.”
Reflecting upon his own internal evolution, Dawkins, nearly thirty-one, admits, “I am just a little bit older than AIDS.
“Just a little bit,” he notes with a cheeky smile. “[AIDS] has always been a big scary thing for me from the get-go and I was taught that this is dangerous. I have always kept that with me but I have also been shown through the strength of my friends that there is a lot of life and good health after infection. But it isn’t easy.”
He continues: “I believe nonchalance amongst today’s youth, like my students, is a sign of the times or, rather, their times.”
Dawkins brings up an interesting parallel to the astrological charting system, not necessarily a cosmic influence on individual moods or personality traits but rather on the relationship of our generation to our values of self-preservation. “I feel the passive attitudes stem from desensitization to adversity. I really feel that how we react does have a lot to do with when we are born,” states Dawkins, referring particularly to his student’s response to AIDS. “It is sort of like a zodiac and, whether or not we identify with [AIDS] as an original challenge or something that we have had to learn to cope with, our fears evolve. The longer something lingers the more surrounding attitudes shift and morph. We have been at war with HIV and have our battle scars. We are financially drained and we are tired but we mustn’t give up the fervor of the fight.”
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.