It’s relatively common for people to write plays that are autobiographical, and then perform in those plays. Less common is an autobiographical play performed in the same neighborhood where events took place that led the play to happen, and produced by the very person that runs the theater where the writer used to squat. If this sounds a little convoluted, it is. But it’s also the very true nature of J.Stephen Brantley’s new play The Jamb, about two queer punks in their forties: one gone straight-edge, one stuck in the wild days of his youth.
“I went to theater because it was where the rebels went at my school,” Brantley told us. “I sort of secretly wanted to be on the soccer team, but queer guys with funny haircuts couldn’t be on the soccer team– I had to be a theater kid.” Off he went to NYU Tisch’s Experimental Theater Wing, where he would begin creating and performing in his own performance work. This practice would only continue to blossom, but with a brief hiatus when Brantley became addicted to heroin and began squatting and sleeping on the streets.
“In the ’90s when people did heroin recreationally, I just kept going. I had an extraordinary opportunity from PS122. They threw a ton of money at me and said, “Rock out.” Eighteen months later I was on the streets, just lost it all,” Brantley said. “I used to squat in the park or on the river. They have these pedestrian overpasses underneath the ramps; you used to be able to crawl in there. It’s sealed up now, but the street punks and the gutter kids used to crawl over this hole and drop down in there. It was like the only place in the city where there were no rodents, because it was a little bunker that you had to climb a six-feet wall and drop down into. And we lit candles and hung tapestries and we crashed there. Every once in a while, city authorities would sweep us out.”
Around this time, Brantley found his way to Under St. Marks, a basement black-box theater that was being run (and still is) by Erez Ziv of Horse Trade Theater Group, which also operates out of East 4th Street’s Kraine Theater. “I slept on a mattress in the middle of that floor,” says Brantley.
“Sometimes in the electrics room,” adds Ziv.
After a period of time squatting in the theater, Ziv finally insisted he had to leave. Brantley eventually returned to making theater, creating work in the Off-Off-Broadway (now called “indie theater”) scene that Horse Trade happened to be a part of. This led to Ziv and Brantley unintentionally uniting to produce Brantley’s play Eightythree Down in 2011. They didn’t realize who each other was until Brantley discussed this experience in his 2014 solo piece Chicken-Fried Ciccone, performed in the very theater he once sought refuge in.
“I have a relationship with that space that is unique,” Brantley says, going on to talk about how in the spirit of low-budget theater he brought The Jamb‘s costume designer some of his old clothes and realized one piece was a shirt he wore in Punk Rock Love Song, the first show he did after he got clean. “Now all these years later, I’m doing a show [where] I’m playing the straight-edge guy this time. I’m now sort of playing the role of who I was starting to be at that time. It’s another full circle moment with Horse Trade Theater Group.”
In an ever-shifting East Village, smaller theaters like Horse Trade’s The Kraine and Under St. Marks have remained. “This is where people get started, and people stay if they don’t want to be too commercial, and people come back [to] if they’re tired of doing work that actually pays but is boring. How many times can you do Streetcar?” said Ziv. “And there are shows here and there that experience commercial success, but overall the kind of work that happens here is by nature not commercial. It’s nice. It’s good to be experimental.”
“And I feel like there are a lot of people who I think are looking for a springboard into the commercial world, and I don’t think that’s how indie theater functions at its best. Works come and go here,” Brantley said. “But there’s something about this world, even as Daniel Craig joins us next door at NYTW, as spaces are sold and the East Village changes, there’s something of that spirit where you can come in here and do something that you don’t get to do anywhere else.”
Ziv remarked that in nearly 20 years of running Horse Trade he’s seen this spirit prevail, but one of the positive shifts he’s observed is their scene becoming less homogenous and white than it was in earlier years. I bring up that this could be, in some ways, happening in the queer community as well.
“The first thing about that is the internet changed everything. When I came here, there were not only different neighborhoods, but different places within different neighborhoods for different queer people to go. To start out, men and women mostly didn’t mix,” said Brantley. “Even on Christopher Street, you had guys of color going to Two Potato and the white guys going to Ty’s. There wasn’t a lot of crossover. I got here in ’89-’90, and it was like that for quite a while. And then the need for queer space evolved. It changed with the internet, with visibility in mass media, it changed a lot. But I think that there’s still a need to look for greater ways to mix things up in all of these areas.”
Brantley’s play, The Jamb, takes place specifically in 2008, which was the year he started writing it. “It’s not really about pop culture, but because it’s set in a certain time, there are references. And I think it’s interesting to hear those now and think about what has changed for queer people and what hasn’t, and what our relationship is to it,” he explained. “What is our identity post-marriage equality? And we’re figuring that out. We’re also discovering that our stories may not be limited to coming out, that we can actually tell bigger stories from a queer perspective. For me, my work is dealing a lot with addiction—because that’s my background—through a queer lens. Addiction is no less a problem now than it was then.”
Though he often performs in his own work, he didn’t initially write The Jamb with himself in mind. “When we started working on it last summer, I was like, I really wanna play this part. And I didn’t know anyone else who could. I wasn’t 40 when I started [the play], but I’m past 40 now. So if I’m gonna play a 40-year-old middle aged punk, I better do it while I still am one.”
J.Stephen Brantley’s “The Jamb,” directed by David Drake, is happening September 1-17 at The Kraine Theater. Tickets are $25.