Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Vital questions raised in Intiman’s new play

Charles Leggett and Adam Standley in John Baxter is a Switch Hitter (Chris Bennion)
John Baxter is a Switch Hitter
Intiman Theatre
Through September 27, 2015

Writing plays about “history” is a peculiar challenge: there is a true story people can read about; there is an aspect that a playwright thinks should be animated on stage. Such is the case with Intiman’s new play, John Baxter is a Switch Hitter, written by playwrights Ana Brown and Andrew Russell.

The play covers the 2008 Gay Softball World Series, held for the first time ever in Seattle. It was a big deal with teams coming from all over, along with supporters and family members. A team from San Francisco, the D2s, was doing better than they ever had, and during the championship game with the Los Angeles Vipers, a challenge was issued against the D2s: they had too many heterosexual players on their team!
Though the D2s lost (potentially because of all the challenges during the game), they were called to a “protest committee” of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) and asked incredibly personal questions about their sex lives and sexual proclivities, because of a rule that teams may only have two heterosexually-identified players on a team at a time.

This struck a lot of people as too similar to the Salem Witch Trials and other discriminatory events, even though the reason the NAGAAA even came to be was because gay people were constantly discriminated against and often couldn’t play with straight folk in “regular” leagues around the country. Out of discrimination, discrimination was born.

The fundamental problem here is an intriguing one and well worth exploring on stage. The “how” to do that is a tricky question. There are moments of great writing in the play at Intiman. It’s also clear that the play needs to be worked on more.

The playwrights transposed the Los Angeles team to Seattle, perhaps to gain more local exposure.  So the Seattle Fireflies are the ones suspecting that the San Francisco team has too many straight players. The play is thick with intended irony.

The cast is large and full of veteran Seattle talent like Adam Standley, Charles Leggett, Reginald Andre Jackson, Michael Place, Bradford Farwell, Betsy Schwartz and Chris Ensweiler. Relative newcomer Riley Shanahan plays John Baxter in a nicely modulated, unassuming, even self-effacing way. Baxter is positioned as a pro-baseballer who lost his job due to injury, and, fiancée clearly on stage, heterosexual.

Standley’s character, Lyle, is the guy we all feel for: coming out when he’s a teen and therefore, losing the opportunity to play pro ball because no one wants an out baseballer on their team! However, seeing his back story characterized on stage – the tech workplace with sexist programmers, and the cisgendered family members that struggle to accept him fully – doesn’t help do anything but extend the playing time.

Two key issues were at play. One, the position the NAGAAA took on bisexuality, is explored pretty well, though more could be done with that. Eventually, the NAGAAA specifically declared in their rules that bisexuals are not now considered “non-gay.” That puts their rules more in line with the “B” in LGBT, though if you ask those who identify as bisexual, their struggle is probably far from over in either “straight” or “gay” cultures.

The other, which the play exemplifies by casting but not by name, is that there was a potent racial component in the actual history of the inquiry. Three San Francisco players who were black were labeled “non-gay” and at least one white San Franciscan, answering the same questions the same way, was accepted as “gay.”

The play names John Baxter as the titular player and makes us assume that this is the main protagonist. Yet, many people in the play tell him, “It’s not about you.” And really it isn’t about him. We learn more about Lyle and the retiring leader of the Fireflies.

Rewriting the play, the more compelling story for the actual historical events might be one of the San Franciscans who had to struggle both with being asked questions of his sexuality in front of strangers, and with identifying as “bi” and knowing that, in 2008, that would then qualify him as “non-gay” in the NAGAAA rules. Yet playing with the gay softball team is the one place he feels safe playing softball!

There is much to like in the writing about the “protest committee” and the swirl of arguments made against the asking of the kinds of personal questions that the rules forced NAGAAA to asked. Younger folks might more readily ask what the big deal was that “non-gay” players had to be policed by numbers.

Yet, history shows not only the reasons, but the necessity for those kinds of rules, historically. In fact, local organizations, such as the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus, also have had to grapple with rules “allowing” heterosexually-identified members.

Once prejudice ebbs, it’s easy to point at how things are and question what looks useless or even counter-productive. But it’s often hard for those who lived through rampant prejudice to abandon the protections that caused them to create now-anachronistic rules in the first place. They were vitally necessary!

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