Ron Jones believes gay theater has a responsibility to do both
by Donalevan Maines
It’s cause for celebration when a veteran theater director surrounds himself with some of the city’s brightest talents to take gay theater in Houston to the next level.
So, of course, Ron Jones christened his new theater company “Celebration.”
The dream took flight when Celebration opened on January 19 with Jon Maran’s The Temperamentals, a Houston premiere that epitomizes the theater’s mission of both entertaining and enlightening audiences.
The play brings to life the true story of colorful agitator Harry Hay as he falls in love with costume designer Rudi Gerneich while co-founding the Mattachine Society, the nation’s first gay rights organization. Set in early 1950s Los Angeles—almost 20 years before the Stonewall Rebellion—the intimate but intricate play is directed by the prolific Jimmy Phillips, with Steve Bullitt romancing Mitchell Greco as the leads and Jeffrey Dorman, John Dunn, and Rob Flebbe portraying multiple characters involved in the struggle to form a secret society.
“That [gays] were called ‘temperamentals’ was news to me,” says Jones, still excited about things he learned from reading the play in manuscript form before The Temperamentals opened in New York City in 2009. With Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie as Gerneich, the docudrama played to packed houses, winning a Drama Desk Award for best ensemble cast, a Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding lead actor, and nominations for outstanding new play in the Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, and GLAAD honors.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time,” Jones says of creating a semi-professional theater company devoted to issues of importance to the LGBT community. “I have a life in the theater, and I want to make an additional contribution to my community.”
At 63, nearing retirement after a storied career in higher education, he adds, “Now I celebrate who I am. Every play is a celebration of life. Every play has a story to celebrate who we are and celebrate our experiences. It’s time to revel in what we have to offer.”
As word got out that Jones intended to follow up his decades of work in theater with Celebration, thespians familiar with his work encouraged him to go for it. The dye was cast when the opportunity arose for Jones to present his first productions at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex on Preston Street. “It’s well-equipped. It’s in a good part of town. There is ample parking. In the beginning, it’s a matter of patrons knowing we exist. A lot of that will be by word of mouth,” he explains.
Jones has long been a magnet for attracting adventures in the theater, including a highlight about 30 years ago when he directed a Tennessee Williams drama, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, at Theatre Suburbia. The legendary playwright flew in from New York to attend that opening. “It was in January and the temperature was 80 degrees,” recalls Jones, “but he arrived in a stretch limousine with 16 people, including a bodyguard who was 6’ 4”, tremendously handsome, and Tennessee Williams stepped out in a full-length coyote fur coat!”
Jones said that Williams enjoyed the show and stayed around afterward, complimenting the cast and drinking champagne.
Last November, Jones had another brush with Tennessee Williams’s work when he saw a production of the obscure one-act Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws starring Mink Stole, who has appeared in all of John Waters’ movies. “I was in New York to see Follies. It was playing at La MaMa, and I just had to see it,” Jones laughs. “It was visually terrific, but I didn’t understand a word of it. Everything was a non sequitur!”
Jones has other ideas for future shows at Celebration, which will move to Obsidian Art Space in August.
“After The Temperamentals, I would like to do a musical—perhaps bare: A Pop Opera,” he says. ”I have some exciting productions planned.” Among the scripts he’s considering are Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride (“a dramatic comedy that alternates between 1958 and 2008 to examine the changing attitudes in male sexuality”), The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman (“based on the 1960s lesbian pulp-fiction novels by Ann Bannon which celebrate the era when ‘the love that dares not speak its name’ began breaking all the rules”), and Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata (“part of the three-play cycle that deals with gay men who adore opera; Master Class is also a part of this trilogy”).
A prolific reader of plays (“I hardly read novels anymore”), Jones also hopes to produce The Judas Kiss by David Hare (“which portrays what might have happened behind closed doors between playwright Oscar Wilde and his considerably younger lover, Lord Alfred Douglas”), Thrill Me by Stephen Dolginof (“a musical drama based on the relationship between the infamous gay couple Nathan Leopold and Richard Lowe, who committed one of the most renowned murders of the 20th century”), Xanadu (“the Broadway musical based on the 1970s Olivia Newton John movie of the same name”), Take Me Out by Richard Greenberg (“the fascinating story of an astounding black baseball player who reveals that he is gay”), and Nasty Little Secrets by Lainie Robertson (“portrays the tumultuous relationship between randy British playwright Joe Orton and his lover, Ken Halliwell, which will run in repertory with Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a raucous comedy about an older gay man who romances a young hunk”).
“I am also negotiating for the rights to Taboo, the musical based on the life of Boy George,” Jones allows.
“The mission of Celebration is to present quality theater to reflect the life experiences of diverse sections of the community through contemporary and alternative lifestyle themes and subjects,” says Jones. “Our productions will explore such complex and varied concepts as relationships, family, prejudice, and values.
“We strive to present productions of plays and musicals that challenge audiences artistically, create cultural bonds and encourage positive awareness, acceptance, and tolerance through the performing arts.”
Forty years ago, Jones acted in his first play, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, at the University of Houston. He was directed by the legendary Cecil Pickett, with actor Dennis Quaid also in the cast. “Marietta Marich, who was the first lady of Houston theater, saw me and cast me in a show at the Dean Goss Dinner Theater,” he says.
Jack Heifner’s Patio/Porch at Theatre Suburbia was Jones’s directing debut. “Over the years, I have directed plays of every genre, with no particular emphasis on subject matter, in many of Houston’s theater venues,” says Jones. “Of course, I have also acted in and directed plays that embrace a gay sensibility. Now, I feel that Houston is perhaps ready to support a theater company that will bring a sense of pride about being who we are. To me, this is something to celebrate!
“I look at it as a means of giving back to my communities, gay and theatrical!”
The opening night performance of The Temperamentals benefitted the GLBT Community Center, and the January 20 performance benefitted Bayou City Performing Arts, said Jones. A special “industry” performance was presented on January 23 on a pay-as-you-like basis for artists and performers who brought a résumé and photo.
The Temperamentals opened on January 19 following a preview the evening before. Performances continue at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays through February 11. All tickets are $30 and can be purchased online at celebrationtheatrehouston.com. For more information, call 832/303-4758.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.