By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Three years ago, as novelist, playwright and social critic Sarah Schulman — deep in thought — strolled the sprawling grounds of the Sundance Institute’s Utah mountaintop compound, a young Jewish professor watched her intently then whispered with reverence, “She’s the big Jew.” And then some. A sturdy hyphenate — old-fashioned New-York-Jewish-artist-intellectual-lesbian-social-activist with unwaveringly progressive politics — Schulman has built a career on works that tackle issues of class, homophobia, racism and misogyny as they play out in the lives of urban dwellers, against large-scale political and cultural canvases. An associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Schulman has written novels that include Rat Bohemia, After Delores, Shimmer and People in Trouble. That last title is, in some ways, her most important work to date.
People in Trouble was inspired by the writer’s days as an activist with ACT UP; she was a member almost from the start of the protest collective. Set in New York’s East Village and peopled with fags, dykes and artists of every hue and inclination, the book was one of the first American works of fiction to tell of the queer community’s activist reaction to the health crisis. And while Puccini’s La Bohème is the clear musical framework for Jonathan Larson’s overrated musical Rent, the play’s updated characters, issues and urban flavor are lifted from Schulman’s novel.
Schulman attempted to turn People in Trouble into an opera with the help of Michael Korie, but was told repeatedly that the subject matter wasn’t right for the stage. To her surprise, in her capacity as a theater critic for New York Press, she was sent to review Rent and saw a work that bore more than a passing resemblance to her own novel. But where multidimensional queerness and people of color were the locus of the world Schulman had created, Larson had tweaked the center, making the heroes straight white boys (for whom HIV is delivered via the needle, natch) — the Puerto Rican queen dies, the lesbian lovers show everything but love, and the status quo song remains the same.
Schulman recovered from her shock and wrote the book Stage Struck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, in which she exhaustively documents not only her claims that Larson used her work as the backbone for his own, but the ways in which a deep-pocketed corporate machine — having backed Larson’s play — made the prospect of her receiving compensation or acknowledgment a pipe dream (a difficulty obviously compounded by Rent’s multiple sources, including La Bohèmeand its predecessor, Muger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème). But Stage Struck uses Schulman’s perceived injury as a jumping-off point to discuss everything from the marketing of queerness, to racism, to the way the American theater carefully doles out homophobia on its big stages. Now in Southern California to workshop her play The Burning Deck in La Jolla Playhouse’s Page to Stage development program, Schulman recently sat down in a Silver Lake diner to discuss the play and upcoming stage projects. She’s also working on film adaptations of her novels After Delores and Shimmer. Closest to her heart, though, is the ACT UP Oral History Project, an ambitious online documentary that, when completed, will include interviews with almost 200 people who were part of the first ACT UP group in New York. She says it will completely transform the way that AIDS is understood in this country.
L.A. WEEKLY: The play that you’re here working on, The Burning Deck, what’s it about, what inspired it?
SARAH SCHULMAN: It was commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse. It’s vaguely inspired by Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette. When I was in college, I was a French major. Balzac had a lot of homosexuality in [his work] in this very interesting way and it was a novel that stayed with me all these years. It’s about a spinster who’s wronged by her family and destroys everybody and everything until she gets revenge. That was a story that appealed to me! [She laughs.] So, I wrote about a woman who’s living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s.
Actually, I was born in Greenwich Village in 1958. And in the building in which I grew up, there was a single woman who was from the Midwest. She was a Christian, and not from my world at all. My parents had no friends who weren’t Jewish. But this woman was American. She lived alone in her apartment. And I always wondered about her, why she left Ohio or wherever she was from. Later, I realized — Oh, a single woman living in the Village in the ’50s and ’60s. So, I went to her and made her be this Cousin Bette figure. What happens in the play is that a black man uses his heterosexual privilege to humiliate this single woman and she uses racism to get back at him and they battle it out. It’s not a tolerance play at all . . . And I thought, you know, when you’re really wronged and you have to make it right, when stakes are really high, is it okay to use racism to get back at somebody who has really, really wronged you?