I had the chance to chat with Oliver Mayer about the anxiously awaited sequel to his exceptional play, Blade to the Heat, Members Only. Set 22 years after the events his characters experienced, this new production examines what changes have happened over that span of time. Thank you to Oliver Mayer for speaking with me and for sharing some insights into his new work.
Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m Oliver Mayer. I’m a playwright. I’m also a professor and associate dean at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. Los Angeles is my home. I live with my wife, actress Marlene Forte (who is in MEMBERS ONLY), and our dog Don Aldo.
To begin, could you discuss your groundbreaking play Blade to the Heat?
I wrote BLADE TO THE HEAT in the mid 1990s. It premiered at the Public Theater in NYC. The West Coast Premiere was at the Mark Taper Forum Main Stage. It played around the nation and internationally. What makes it stand out is its portrayal of sexuality in the world of boxing circa 1959 among a group of men of color. It is written with a kind of dynamism and velocity to make you feel as if the audience were in the ring watching a fight. The music was unforgettable — Jackie Wilson and James Brown, early salsa. Even though it was set in 1959, many people read it as an AIDs play, by nature of its frankness about the dangers of sexuality. It was one of the first plays where the lead character was not only gay, but was able to survive the crucible of the play rather than being a victim or a sacrifice.
On October 26th the long-awaited sequel debuts at LATC, Members Only. Could you describe this show?
22 years have passed since BLADE was at the Taper. In MEMBERS ONLY, 22 years have passed for the surviving characters of the first play. We are now in 1982 New York City, and the music of Pat Benatar, Willie Colon, Donna Summer and Laurie Anderson. Quinn, the lead boxer, is still fighting way past his prime. Although he is not out, he has much more freedom as a gay man. But he continues to fight as if driven by the ghost of man he killed in the ring in the first play. Meanwhile, a young woman named Lone is trying to break into this extremely male world. In 1982, female fighters were often considered freaks. Her journey is fraught with danger, but Quinn takes her under his wing. After all, he understands what she is going through. But when he is no longer able to fight, Quinn has to find a way not only to to free himself from the shadows of his guilt, but to give absolution to the other surviving characters from the first play who are also beset with regret and shadows — even as all the characters are potentially in the line of fire from the as-yet unnamed AIDS crisis.
What do you hope those who loved the original show take away from this sequel?
MEMBERS ONLY has the dynamism and provocative sexuality of BLADE, but the history and mystery of 1982 give it a different texture. Still, we will do the live fights on stage, as well as the intimate sexuality, the sexy music, and the unswerving views on love, desire and death that pervaded the first play. Amazingly, Ray Oriel, who played Quinn at the Taper 22 years ago, is playing the part of Quinn again 22 years later! We have assembled an extraordinary cast, and we have a brilliant director and design team. Even though we’re all a little bit older, MEMBERS ONLY can still pack a punch!
As a follow up, what do you hope those who are just meeting the characters now will take away from Members Only?
MEMBERS ONLY is a stand-alone play (although those who saw BLADE will derive extra joy from connecting themes, storylines, etc). Audiences will get a window inside the world of boxing (one of the most lonely sports in the world). I want audiences to feel the breathlessness and adrenaline of both the big fights and the moments of intimate revelation. I want them to fall in love with these damaged but beautiful people of color fighting for their right to be — then and now.
What inspired you to create your original work and what led you to create the sequel?
My wife Marlene Forte had always wanted to play the part of Sarita in BLADE. Some years into our marriage, she said to me that we were getting too old for that first play, but perhaps I could write a sequel? It got me thinking. If I were to tell her character’s story, I would want to investigate the lives of all the surviving characters. Perhaps because of my work as a professor of dramatic arts, I am also taken with the idea of writing a third play to finish the Quinn saga — as the Greek dramatists did with Oedipus and Electra. If I live long enough, I will complete this third play. The ongoing theme will be American sexuality among men of color, and how one man’s battle with his own identity lets us into the life and death stakes of love as well as sex.
You also teach dramatic writing, in your courses what do you hope to share with your students?
My goal is for my young writers to find their own voices. I show them how plays work, and I do what I can to mentor them. But the journey is an individual one. I don’t want them to write like me. But I do want them to find the fire within them that will sustain their passion for writing plays over time. I do think that being a playwright is the coolest job in the whole world.
Where can our readers find out more about you and Members Only?