This excerpted interview with Sarah Schulman was done on June 4, 2003. She was in Los Angeles to promote a play she'd written and I interviewed her for the LA Weekly. The interview was several hours long and far too much for the Weekly to run. Much fell on the cutting room floor. I picked up those discarded segments and put them in my new book, in the piece titled "Sarah Schulman: Acting Up and Defending Names."
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 Staten Island’s City University in New York, her novels 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. 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 novel. But where multi-dimensional 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 thoroughly and convincingly 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 and now fiercely protective of their investment – made the prospect of her receiving compensation or acknowledgment a pipe dream. But the book uses that experience as a jumping off point to discuss everything from the commodification of queerness, to racism and carefully doled out homophobia in the big leagues of American theater. Smart, blunt and filled with surprising humor, it’s that rare tome of modern criticism that is actually relevant and illuminating.
Now in Los Angeles to fine tune and showcase her play, the Burning Deck (the title is taken from the line of an Elizabeth Bishop poem), Schulman recently sat down in a Silverlake diner to discuss the play and upcoming projects: stage adaptations of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, a Love Story and Carole Anshaw's Aquamarine; a collaboration with actress, Jessica Hecht, on the play, Mercy; collaborations with director, Marion McClinton, and actress, Michi Barall, on Made in Korea, a play about international adoption, and with Amy Resnick in San Francisco on Conjugation, which she dubs “an unromantic comedy.” 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 two hundred 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.”
Ernest: What was the inspiration for doing the AIDS Memorial Project at this time?
Sarah: Well, I was in LA a couple of years ago having a play done, driving around in my little white rental car and it turns out that that day was the 20th anniversary of AIDS, which I discovered by listening to NPR in the car. So, I was listening and at one point the announcer said, “At first America had trouble with people with AIDS, but then they came around.” And I thought, that’s not what happened! You know, it’s so interesting because whenever oppressed people achieve a social transformation, it always gets historicized as though it was the good will of the dominant group, when it’s always the subordinate group who forces them, kicking and screaming, into a new era. And yet it’s never articulated that way... I was just so angry that the dominant culture – who despised and abandoned people with AIDS – was going to take credit for the work that we did.
When I asked you about comparing the climate that gave birth to ACT UP to the current social and political climate, you said your answer would have been different before than it is after having interviewed all these people – different in what way?
Well, you know, I am 44 and I’m not of the Internet generation. I don’t understand the new technologies. I don’t have an intimate relationship with them, and ultimately it’s the people who are in the moment of the culture who are most able to make the transformative leaps. So, it’s going to be people who are much younger than me who are going to create the new social movements that will change this country. And they’ll do it. I believe that. Because, don’t forget that every historical moment passes – the Holocaust passed, slavery ended, McCarthyism passed. The trick is to try to outlive it. But this moment that we’re in which is so terrible, it will pass. And people will come with new ideas.
Speaking of the dominant culture and those who are not part of it, what do you think when you hear about the controversies surrounding affirmative action or diversity programs? I mean, do you really think there’s any real interest in a diversity of voices, bodies or realities in the worlds of business or media – theater in particular?
Do you? Based on your own experiences?
No, not at all. My own experiences have shown me quite the opposite. Even when tokens of color are used, it’s actually to reaffirm someone else’s perspective or primacy. That central narrative cannot be fucked with or you’re out of work.
Right. There’s absolutely no interest in diversity at all in the theater world. Theater is far behind every other art form. You know, Audre Lorde was my teacher in college, and one day she had us take out our notebooks and she said, ‘Class, write this down: That you can’t fight city hall is a rumor being spread by City Hall.’ Since she pointed that out to me, I have noticed that people who the system works for will always tell you that change is impossible. And they’ll always tell you that you’re wrong and bad because you want change.
But change occurs because you don’t listen to them.
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