The Gay Heritage Project is a three man show written and performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn, and Andrew Kushnir. It explores what a “gay heritage” is and tackles the complexities and subjectivity of concepts such as heritage, identity, and belongingness—not only trying to define what they mean to individuals and communities, but also asking whether they even exist. Although predominantly focusing on gay histories, the play also explores identity as a whole, perfectly exemplified by Ukrainian-Canadian Kushnir’s journey to find other gay Ukrainians. His realization of how differently he experiences his sexuality and cultural identity in diaspora is a heavy exploration of what identity and belongingness really mean. However, despite the philosophical and often serious nature of the content, the humour never falters. This play is seriously hilarious (or hilariously serious, perhaps).
The Gay Heritage Project moves seamlessly between the actors’ personal journeys, historical discrimination, and current issues, chipping away at complex concepts through innovative choreography and acting. One of the most poignant examples of this is the scene addressing the AIDS epidemic where the virus itself is personified and put on trial; via a victim impact statement, the virus hears the intergenerational impact of its work—not only the staggering number of people who were lost, but the stories, wisdom, and heritage that were lost with them. This approach of personifying concepts not only kept the play engaging and humorous, but also made it possible to explore abstract ideas on the stage that might otherwise be too intangible for this medium. At one point, Gay Identity meets old friends, among them Gay Desire and Drag, in a dark alley and is faced with the question of whether it had sold out in its struggle for human rights, whether sweeping away its gritty underground roots in an attempt to “clean up” and gain mainstream acceptance was really worth it. The actors were superb in embodying each character they played.
For the first half, the show appeared to be another story told by white middle-class gay men. And, while it certainly was a lot about their experiences, the second part of the play saw the actors acknowledging the intersections of identity and oppression that many folks in LGBTQ2S+ communities experience. They acknowledged that the “gay identity” is not really a monolith, and that there are countless stories that were not theirs to tell. Ever a difficult journey, the trio addressed their own privileges and navigated their uncertainty in how to build connections. Although the show often assumes that its audience has some knowledge of gay history or culture, this knowledge is by no means a requirement for enjoying or understanding the show.
The Gay Heritage Project received a standing ovation on its opening night at The Cultch, and deservedly so. At just under two hours long (with no intermission), it is so engaging that it feels half an hour long, but somehow manages to explore the issues and stories of generations.
The Gay Heritage Project is on now until March 19, 2016 at The Cultch theatre. For tickets and information, visit TheCultch.com.