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Songs to Die By 

Sean San José moves from raw nerve to whole person in this band-backed play about AIDS

Wednesday, Jul 3 2002
You may have heard that Sean San José's new solo show, I Feel Love, is about his parents, who died of AIDS. That's not true. The show is about almost everything else. The main character -- a fictional San José, created by playwright Erin Cressida Wilson -- talks in a disconnected way about growing up in San Francisco, first in the free and sultry 1970s and then in that other decade, the one that came after it, the one that introduced a "gay cancer" to the American public and had no use for Donna Summer. The fictional San José's stories range from old bathhouses on Howard Street to a recent car accident on I-5, but his body never leaves the bedroom, where he tries to escape grief by listening to old LPs. The real San José gives an intense and sometimes heartbreaking performance backed up (I'm happy to say) by a live disco/jazz band.

Of course, the show is about his parents, implicitly. You almost have to go into the theater knowing that, because he mentions them only a few times. "Both my parents are dead," he says at the beginning. "I killed them. I gave them morphine." Then: "I gave them AIDS, too. Well, I told the world they had AIDS ...." This strained line refers to San José's "Pieces of the Quilt" project. In 1996 he formed a foundation in his mother's name, the Alma Delfina Group, which commissioned playwrights across the country (from Edward Albee to Wilson) to write one-acts about AIDS victims for benefit shows.

San José starts the production sitting half-naked in a tatty red velvet chair, almost a throne, that spins around to reveal a tall mirror. The band plays something brooding and cool. His body is oiled, glistening; he wears a crucifix, and you can see his tattoos. He looks up at a narrow spotlight and gives a pinched, disjointed speech. At first he seems detached, as if he's playing not Sean San José but a suffering, writhing inner delinquent. "Whoever opened up the AIDS virus was a trip," he says. "But whoever started asking for more! more! more! was a real sick ticket." He rambles, scratches his crotch, and raves. The band changes songs. "This is a good tune," he mutters.

Some of the writhing is a put-on; for a while San José seems to grasp at grief instead of showing us the real thing. The deeper he goes into the play, though, the truer it feels, and midway his acting hits a passionate groove. He talks trash about having a baby with a stripper, then loses the tough attitude to reminisce in a fey voice about giving blow jobs on Howard Street. He tells a weirdly compelling (and probably fictional) story about a woman with cancer in a nameless California town -- a stranger who asks him to put her out of her misery. "When you're stuck livin' here," he says, "their dying can be like breathing. Their blood like skin. Or oxygen."

The darkest parts of I Feel Love explore the obscene territory between lust and death. San José with his clothes off has an erotic stage presence, and the soft jazz and disco music belongs in a lounge or club. "You got some kinda hot blood in you," says San José as his mother, his voice thick with gallows irony, "gonna kill you from the inside out." Most stories about AIDS find room for a love-death motif, of course, and Wilson's script doesn't always avoid cliché. But the jerky, fragmented narrating style keeps things from growing too obsessive; San José toys with ideas and then leaves them alone. Also, as the play moves on, he gets dressed: He becomes less of an obscene raw nerve and more of a person.

The live band organized around Josh Jones and Scheherazade Stone plays original songs as well as scraps of recognizable '70s hits -- what San José at one point calls an "AIDS karaoke playlist." The music is thick as lava. It lures, cloys, and soothes. Kevin Cunz's set design places the band behind a hazy arrangement of scrims and puts the mirror-backed velvet chair on a spinning Lazy Susan. The effect is warm and narcissistic in a way that belongs to the 1970s. Still, one of the surprises in I Feel Love is how San José says goodbye to that sweet but self-obsessive decade. "Remember Pop Rocks? Crank calls on dial phones? (Before Caller ID.) Remember the fuzzy sound of records, taping songs off the radio -- do you remember?" he cries. "Sex before AIDS?" This impersonal litany brings him closer to catharsis than any other part of the show, and lights up grief in all its dimensions -- the desperate self-love as well as the terrible pain.


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