Stage Door Review

Shove It Down My Throat

Thursday, April 4, 2019

✭✭✩✩

by Johnnie Walker, directed by Tom Arthur Davis  

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre & Pandemic Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

April 3-14, 2019

“It’s the journey”

Johnnie Walker’s latest play Shove It Down My Throat could have been a riveting, provocative hour-long solo show dealing with his desire to find out the truth about a gay bashing incident in 2013. Instead, it is a bloated multi-actor play that goes about exploring the truth in such a roundabout, digressive fashion that the point of Walker’s investigation and of the play get buried under a mass of pointless scenes and commentaries. There’s no doubt a fascinating play could be based on the real incident that caught Walker’s attention, but this is not that play.

At a New Year’s Eve party in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2013, 19-year-old Luke O’Donovan, a self-described queer anarchist, became involved in a fight. A group of men (five to fifteen of them) verbally and physically abused O’Donovan. They had knives. He had a knife. During the fight he stabbed five of his attackers and was himself stabbed three times. The result, however, was that Luke was charged with five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon while none of his alleged attackers was charged. If convicted by a jury, Luke could have faced a sentence of 110 years in prison. Therefore, Luke agreed to a plea bargain to receive two years in prison and eight years probation during which, under a strange law in Georgia, he was banished from the state.

Reading about the obvious homophobia in this miscarriage of justice, Johnnie Walker began corresponding with Luke in prison and began researching the case. Walker visited Atlanta, interviewed Luke’s friends and family and, eventually when Luke was released, interviewed him in San Francisco during his probation.

Where Walker’s play takes a wrong turn is in his attempt to universalize Luke’s case. One might say that gay bashing is a phenomenon well known enough that it doesn’t need to be universalized, yet Walker feels the need to conjure up the spirits of gays past and present via a magic mirror on Anahita Dehbonehie’s authentically grungy set of Buddies in Bad Times’s dressing room. Performers Daniel Carter, Willard Gillard, Kwaku Okyere, Craig Pike and Anders Yates appear. Daniel Carter and Kwaku Okyere apparently are the millennials. Okyere is especially concerned with triggering and political correctness while Carter is only interested in whether guys are cute or hot. Willard Gillard, Craig Pike and Anders Yates apparently represent the past although Pike’s role as a macho gay doesn’t really confine him to a specific period. What periods Gillard and Yates represent is hard to tell just from Dehbonehie’s costumes since the actors don’t wear the corresponding hairstyles. Undercuts were not a thing in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s. 

With these “ghosts” of the theatre, Walker as himself tries to make sense of what actually happened on the night of Luke’s fight. Based on various partial sources of information – newspaper accounts, dubious information retrieved from the internet, comment threads and, finally, the court transcripts – Walker and his ghosts enact various scenarios to determine how Luke could have wounded five men, one seriously, and received three stab wounds in the back. All three enactments prove unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, Walker reveals that he has begun corresponding with Luke in prison and hopes to get his own version of what happened (although one might have thought that would have been part of the court documents). 

There are many difficulties with this approach. First, the idea that there are many points of view of the same incident is hardly new.  It is at least as old as Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1915 story “Rashomon”, best known outside Japan by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film of the same name. Second, it’s pointless for Walker and his ghosts to keep re-enacting Luke’s fight when they know they don’t have the complete information. The re-enactments amount to idle speculation. So, too, are the queries, since he attended the party with a woman and was driven away from it by another woman, about whether Luke was really gay or not. 

The worst aspect of Walker’s use of “ghosts” is that all their catfights and would-be-witty comments attract attention away from the subject that is supposed to be the play’s focus. What do competing imitations of Julia Sugerbaker in the sitcom Designing Women (1986-93) or other pop culture trivia have to do with anything? If Walker wants to write a play about how different generations of gay men viewed the world that would be a great topic, but a topic for another play, not this one.

Moving the play even more off-focus is the appearance of non-binary performer Heath V. Salazar, who chides the six gay males for their prejudice in thinking their cis view of the world fully represents the gay experience. Valid as Salazar’s criticism may be, this leads the play into yet another topic that would be suitable for a separate play. Also Walker’s giving this nonbinary character magic powers in a gay play smells too much like the “magical Negro” trope in Hollywood movies.

After intermission, Walker appears in front of the curtain and tells us that Luke is out of prison and is just behind the curtain and we are going to get to see Walker talk to Luke at a café in San Francisco. Unfortunately, that is precisely what does not happen. Walker immediately thrusts us into a dream or a perhaps a nightmare vision of his obsession with Luke’s story that sees him playing various parts in Luke’s story, including being among the drunk straight guys who attacked Luke. 

Only once this long, completely expendable and unilluminating dream sequence is over, do we get Walker’s interview with Luke. This is the most effective portion of the entire pay. Walker plays Luke while each of the ghosts asks the various questions Johnnie asked. Surprisingly, the ghosts question Luke only about the events involving the fight and ask Luke nothing about his plea bargain or what it feels like to have been physically gay bashed and then legally gay bashed and exiled by Georgia’s judicial system.  

The Note in the programme from director Tom Arthur Davis and producer Jiv Parasram, founding Artistic Producer of Pandemic Theatre, tries to suggest that Walker’s play has a metatheatrical element in that it questions the possibility of creating documentary theatre in an age when mainstream media have become so political. First of all, if that is  what they think Walker is doing they should recognize that his play already goes off on far too many irrelevant tangents as it is. Second, they should see that if interrogating the form of documentary theatre is Walker’s purpose, that purpose does not come through at all in the finished play.

All the the digressions and repetitive scenes in Walker’s play might be easier to take if the acting were uniformly of a high quality. Yet, that is not the case. Walker himself is affable and articulate. He is especially chilling when he plays Luke, not because that character is evil but because the truth of what happened is so frightening.

Of the other cast members only Craig Pike and Anders Yates match Walker in their ability to project and enunciate clearly. The other four actors tend to speak at a conversational level and to run their words together so that rather too frequently little that they say is intelligible. The one exception, strangely enough, is when they all play the good old (straight) Southern boys on their way to the party when they speak clearly and are very funny. 

Johnnie Walker has done a good deed in bringing Luke O’Donovan’s case to a larger public. It seems, however, in the play’s many years of development that too many extraneous ideas were grafted onto what could have been a simple and compelling solo show. Seven characters are not needed to tell this narrative which is fundamentally only about Walker’s evolving views of Luke’s story. Two and a half hours is certainly not needed to tell the story which if an hour long, punchy and compact, would have had much greater impact. Luke’s story is one that needs to be told. Let’s hope Walker can go back to square one, cut away all the excess, and tell us that story, what it means to him and what it should mean to all of us.    

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Craig Pike, Daniel Carter, Anders Yates, Kwaku Okyere, Willard Gillard and Johnnie Walker; Willard Gillard, Johnnie Walker, Anders Yates, Kwaku Okyere, Daniel Carter, Heath V Salazar and Craig Pike. © 2019 Jeremy Mimnagh.

For tickets, visit buddiesinbadtimes.com.