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Unhinged Production of ‘Uncivil Unions’

The cast of Uncivil Unions includes (clockwise from top left) Taavi Mark, Chris Rivera, Todd Greenfield, Karen J. Imas, Patrick Green, J. Mays, Tamekia Jackson, and Stephanie Morris.

LGBT theater group explores gay marriage in Houston.

by Neil Ellis Orts • Photo by James Stender

Proposition 8. Even though it was an amendment to California’s state constitution, its passage in November of 2008 has had a ripple affect across the United States, to say the least. After the California Supreme Court had ruled that gay marriage should be legal, and after many couples had already taken a walk down the aisle, the citizens of California voted to repeal that judgment by making gay marriage unconstitutional. That decision to define marriage as being between a man and a woman wrecked many California wedding planners’ calendars and slowed the momentum that the movement for gay marriage rights had seen up to that point.

Of course, before and since then, the question of gay marriage has been a topic of much discussion. It’s been a fundraising tool for both the antigay crowd and for LGBT rights organizations. This month, Houston’s Unhinged Productions makes the hot-button topic a theatrical event with Uncivil Unions, which opens May 7 at Frenetic Theater and runs through the end of the month.

When Joe Angel Babb became artistic director of Unhinged Productions last summer, no season had been announced. Pondering the place of LGBT theater in the Houston community and looking at his resources, he proposed a show that would be a uniquely local project in concept and execution. His own disappointment with Proposition 8 was only one piece of the inspiration. “I was actually inspired by an episode of Kathy Griffin [My Life on the D-List],” Babb says, “who used her position as a satirist and comedienne to talk about her disappointment in Prop 8.”

Then he started looking at his own experience as a theater educator, where he instructs students to do research or conduct interviews and create drama with the raw materials gathered in that way. “It’s very similar to the way Moises Kaufman wrote The Laramie Project,” Babb says. “I have Moises Kaufman on one side and Kathy Griffin on the other. So docudrama with sketch comedy are the ingredients guiding the process.”

Changes in his personal life also helped influence and prod Uncivil Unions. “I didn’t really care about [gay marriage] until this year,” Babb says. “It didn’t change the type of relationship I had. But I bought a house this year with my partner, and there were a lot of extra steps I had to do. If we were a man and a woman, there wouldn’t be all these extra things. We had to get a legal document to protect our property. It would be protected if we were a married couple, but since we’re not a married couple, my mother has more rights to my property than my partner does.”

The goal of the project is to have a snapshot of what attitudes are like right now, right here in Houston. An attempt was made to find a diverse demographic of people—male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, single, partnered, for and against gay marriage. For several months, members of the Unhinged family of artists interviewed public figures and private friends about gay marriage, gathering the raw material for this show.

The process started in December, when Babb pulled together the team of artists with whom he wanted to work. Meetings started out every other week and increased in frequency until rehearsals began for the show. “It’s kind of a daunting experience,” Babb says. “We don’t necessarily know what we have, we only know what effect we’re going for.”

Chris Rivera, one of the artists creating the show, says, “We’ve been meeting and doing ensemble work and building together, but outside of that we have our own projects. We’re doing the interviews as individuals and a few of us with writing experience and who have an interest in certain things started writing pieces. But the idea is that once the piece is written, the first draft is taken by the group and worked on and shaped to fit the show.”

Rivera continues, “We’re a very diverse crowd of artists, so I think we’re all using our pool of people we know. I chose someone I was close to, who had the first dating agency in Houston for gay men, for the perspective of someone who’s seen a lot and seen people really try to make it work.”

“I chose to interview somebody who was born a man and transitioned and is now living as a woman,” Babb says. “She is legally married to a woman, and has not legally changed her sex [in order to] remain married.”

The title itself, Uncivil Unions, has some ambiguity to it. It could easily be a Hollywood romantic comedy or a TV show about suburban marital discontent or even a documentary about our current polarized political system. “The title actually came to me first,” Babb says. “Being Unhinged, I wanted to capitalize on the Un in the title.” After brainstorming different Uns, it was Uncivil that got presented to the Unhinged board of directors, and everyone approved. “But the more we delve into it, the more apropos it is. The ambiguity lends itself to a diverse show.”

“But the piece is very Houston,” Rivera says. “It’s not just gay marriage in America. We could have done interviews with just about anyone, but we’re really looking at what [gay marriage] means in Houston, to our lives. It’s a show for this community.”

Uncivil Unions runs Fridays and Saturdays, May 7 through May 30 (with two Sunday shows and one Monday show) at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. See for full details.

Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer living in Houston. His creative writing has appeared in several small press journals and anthologies and his novella, Cary and John is available wherever you order books. He is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.

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