Tyshawn Gooden and Greg Piccirilli in Jerker. (Photograph by Tyler Ogburn)
When the monumental play Jerker starts showing online as the latest virtual offering from the Out Front Theater in Atlanta, it might be easy to narrow it down to a thrilling play about two gays talking badly to each other. It would be a mistake. This playful, genuinely sexual and ultimately hot play is more than a phone sex gadget.
Jerker takes us back to the 1980s (the play was written in 1986 by the late Robert Chesley) where gay sex had become so terribly dangerous that bars were emptying and sex venues closed. There were no online apps (“online” as a concept was still in its infancy), and all sexual perspectives carried with them a bewildering anxiety.
But that doesn’t mean that our collective libido as homosexuals has completely disappeared. We needed sexual connection as much as we needed emotional intimacy, and we’re nothing but resourceful when it comes to meeting our needs.
And so we turned to the telephone, a very simple instrument in those days that were decades away from becoming a supercomputer. He was still anchored to the wall by a coiled rope and capable of nothing more than connecting us to a voice on the other end of the line.
But oh my God, that voice. As the two Jerker characters find out, there is an exciting intimacy in revealing your most private desires to a disembodied voice over the phone. During the one-act play, these two men share their secrets and then slowly their hopes and fears, spoken through furtive screams and whispers.
It’s only fitting that a special screening of Jerker will take place on Wednesday, April 28 at 7 p.m. ET and benefit AID Atlanta (visit OutFrontTheatre.com for tickets). By the time Jerker was written, AID Atlanta had already served Atlanta’s ravaged gay community for several years.
As part of the special screening, I will have the privilege of hosting a talk-back with the cast and crew of Jerker right after the performance. As well as being a longtime HIV activist and survivor myself, I share an unusual degree of separation with Jerker’s autoerotic theme.
In the early 1980s, I owned and operated Telerotic, one of the largest gay phone companies in the industry. Business has been vibrant during the AIDS crisis. It was the golden age of phone sex. Customers have called from across the country to speak live to one of our phone fantasy men team, and learning their preferences and wants has never been less than fascinating.
What has talking to thousands of gay people taught me over the years? I learned that everyone wants to be taken care of. Everyone wants to feel safe. Everyone wants to know that he is wanted and valued.
On phone calls with clients that sometimes spanned years, I heard about their heartache and loneliness, knew their hopes and aspirations, and shared their grief over their rejection. family or the pain of homosexual assault.
It can be easy to narrow down calls to something frivolous, but I refuse to do it. The client’s need to be treated as a full human being, capable and worthy of affection and sex that was not perverse, ugly, or pathological was desperately needed in the 1980s, especially for men. isolated in small towns across the country. Believe me, back then, sexual fulfillment and true self-love were much harder to come by. That’s what makes a piece like Jerker all the more bittersweet in retrospect.
I sincerely hope that the dreams my clients had for themselves someday come true, that they found someone who would take care of them as they deserved and that they managed to hang out for years 1980 alive.
And I remain haunted, today and forever, by the sound of lamentable desire in their voices.
Queerty contributor Mark S. King won the GLAAD Award for his blog, My Fabulous Disease. For tickets for Jerker’s special virtual screening on April 28, visit OutFrontTheatre.com. The virtual screening will be available to a regular audience from April 30 to May 2.