KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 27, 1991
Performance art is a pretty personal thing. Sometimes it’s more cathartic or illuminating for the performer than for the audience. That’s kind of how I felt about Jesse Haywood’s “Rebel Without a Car.”
When he found out two years ago that he was HIV-positive, the first thing Haywood wanted to do was create an upbeat, uplifting one-man show. That he has done; but although “Rebel” is laced with humor, it’s also tinged with pain. This is another highly personal journey through adolescence, homosexual awareness, New York apartments and roommates, lovers, jobs, rejection, drinking, drugs and AIDS.
“When I was born,” Haywood says, “the first voice I heard was my own.” It will probably be his last, too. It’s a pleasant voice, though bearing the gravelly marks of too many cigarettes. Haywood’s singing is more earnest than polished, and the songs by local composer Stu Shames are agreeable though derivative. Haywood gets very emotional in his singing, and in some of his monologues, but he never seems completely comfortable inside the music. Onstage musical director David Heikkila helps, with his sparkling accompaniment, personality — and bowtie.
Haywood shines in his two delightful female characters, done in semi-drag — a coke-snorting televangellette and a beehived waitress. He’s good and funny and convincing, but we don’t quite learn anything new from either of them. I preferred his insights about Sister St. Monica, “the oldest nun in America,” who taught him a thing or two about religion and guilt.
His young sister Terri, who was born with mental retardation, taught him a few things, too, even though she died in early childhood. She’s a metaphor for his own feelings of difference, and probably the impetus for him to dedicate the piece to “celebrating… our specialness and uniqueness.”
There’s a lot of the usual dysfunctional family stuff. No new insights for me, and a lot of gay in-jokes that the rest of the audience found hilarious.
The second act takes a darker turn, weaving in and out of the events surrounding Haywood’s HIV test results. He does a very humorous bit about the horrors of racing around among bureaucrats to get blood tests, check-ups, AZT approval and dispensing, but the timing seemed off and he slowed down toward the end of his breathless criss-crossing of the stage, which made me start to worry about his health.
He seems robust, though, and as happy as possible. When I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, he actually turned my day around, he was so optimistic, energetic and high-spirited. He’s very cute, too, and, under Tim Irving’s direction, he plays his cuteness to the hilt, with frequent posing and mugging and showing off the dimples.
He’s really a very likable guy, but you still come away feeling a little sad. And sensing that maybe he got more out of this than you did. “Thanks,” he says to the audience when he’s done, “for helping to make one of my dreams come true.”
It’s a small piece, that fits just fine into the tiny Kingston Playhouse. Knowing Jesse makes the thing more meaningful. But I’m not sure it’ll fly out of town.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.