I saw a very good play tonight. It’s called “The Gay Heritage Project”, created and performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir. It’s only playing for one more week, so unless you read this very soon, you’ll probably never get a chance to see it. (Pity.)
Going into the play, I wondered if we needed another play about gay history, but I had misunderstood. This play is about gay heritage, not gay history. Heritage is about what we personally receive (or take) from history, and it’s something that may not objectively exist. The result is a sketch show that is ambitious in its scope. On one hand it’s about historical events — from the world, from Canada, from Ontario, and from Toronto (and it seems well-researched) — but on the other hand, it’s also intensely autobiographical, as these three Toronto men try to figure out what history means to them. It’s a dense one hour and 45 minutes (no intermission), and the energy level never drops for a moment.
It makes sense to me that this play emerged from Toronto. This is a city where people will often ask about your “heritage” or “background”, by which they mean what country or culture your family is from. (I’ve encountered this in other cities, but never with such convenient shorthand terms.) Torontonians celebrate their cultural heritages, and the concept of a gay heritage must seem like a short jump.
I sometimes dislike works about the “gay community” because they assume a homogeneity about the gay community that I can’t relate with and feel alienated by. But Gay Heritage Project is quick to emphasize that it’s a play about three individuals, and not necessarily the wider gay community. In one sketch, Dunn wonders if he has “licence” (portrayed as a literal licence) to represent the gay community. In another, Atkins wonders if other gay people want be on his “Gay Heritage Project bus”. In another, Kushnir realizes that despite identifying as a gay Ukranian, he’s not gay and Ukranian “in the same way” as those back in the Ukraine.
In fact, watching these performers explore gay identity in their individual cultural backgrounds (Australian, Irish, Ukranian) reminded me that I had permission to do the same.
The performers are all excellent. They’re energetic, skilled with accents and impersonations, and make good use of physicality to distinguish different roles. (Atkins does a better Australian accent than I can, and I’m from Australia. Though — very minor nitpick — he doesn’t know how to pronounce “Wagga Wagga”.) The actors seem to have a natural rapport. There’s a sketch where the three actors portray one another having difficult conversations with their families, and it speaks volumes to the familiarity between the three of them.
It occurred to me that “heritage” is inexorably tied up with “community”. Communities celebrate their heritage, while heritage helps define community. And if the idea of gay heritage is vague, that’s partly because the idea of gay community is vague. And if gay community is vague, that’s partly because gay heritage is vague.
Do you know how I know this? Because after watching The Gay Heritage Project, I suddenly felt more part of the gay community.