NCTC’s ‘PrEP Play’ examines the debt gay men of today owe to the past

Writer Yilong Liu (left), director Adin Walker, Troy Rockett as Jared, Akaina Ghosh as Agent 701 (aka PrEP), James Aaron Oh as Erik and Matt Weimer as Bryant during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

When I worked at New Conservatory Theater Center before joining The Chronicle, management had a very clear rebranding directive: no more naked guys.

The shift was hardly the result of a sudden onset of prudishness. The LGBTQ theater on Van Ness Avenue was hoping to move beyond its old reputation as “Nude” Conservatory Theater Center, where audiences could reliably ogle young, naked dudes onstage.

Depending on your maturity level, that idea might make you cringe or titter. But I didn’t find out founder Ed Decker’s thoughtful justification for that bygone era until toward the end of my tenure.

Ed Decker, the founding artistic director, gives opening remarks to guests at a gala unveiling of New Conservatory Theater Center’s renovated lobby. Photo: Santiago Mejia / Special to The Chronicle 2016

“Our sexuality and our sex became associated with death and dying,” he told me. It was important to him to use the theater he founded in 1982 to create a fuller, more ennobling and life-affirming way to look at gay and queer men; their sexuality wasn’t and could not be totally boxed in by the HIV/AIDS crisis.

That context makes the company’s forthcoming world premiere of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute,” beginning Friday, April 1, through May 8, all the more remarkable.

Matt Weimer as Bryant (left) and James Aaron Oh as Erik during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Yilong Liu’s script is about an intergenerational couple in an open relationship. Bryant (Matt Weimer) lived through the nadir of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and still mourns a lost love, Jared (Troy Rockett). Erik (James Aaron Oh), for whom that was history, just started taking PrEP, the drug approved by the FDA in 2012 to prevent HIV infection.

To Bryant, Erik’s sex life seems staggeringly easy, to the point of carelessness, insensitivity and ingratitude to generations before whose suffering essentially made his life possible. To Erik, an immigrant from the much more repressive China, the whole point of achieving medical advances and gaining new rights and freedoms is to take advantage of them. What’s he supposed to do, live in the past?

Matt Weimer as Bryant (right), James Aaron Oh as Erik and Akaina Ghosh as Agent 70 (aka PrEP) during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

The ingeniousness of Liu’s script is that living in the past becomes possible, thanks to PrEP itself. Its real-life symptoms include vivid dreams, here embodied by actor Akaina Ghosh. Taking her from her, in the world of the play, gives the patient time-traveling power.

Liu, who is 31 and lives in New York after having emigrated from Chongqing, China, says he got the idea for the play partly from his own lifelong interest in queer history, which for him was tied to learning English, and partly from his dreams . Growing up and reading about an HIV/AIDS crisis in another time and place, “I felt like there’s this lineage or legacy that is breathing and bleeding inside me,” he said.

Writer Yilong Liu (right) and director Adin Walker during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Before I started taking PrEP, in 2015, “queer intimacy had been associated with shame, guilt, fear and anxiety,” he said. The drug liberated him, but he also started to worry that using it would make him forget the history that he had made part of his identity.

Both the play and, to some extent, NCTC’s own journey as a company are about remembering and mourning. What obligations do we in the present owe to a tragic past? When is it right to mount a play of cathartic mourning? And when a celebratory, unapologetically sexual one?

Part of what makes Bryant such a theatrically ripe character is that, although he knows he needs something else from Erik, he can’t fully articulate what that is. If one acknowledgment of what Bryant lost is not enough, but Erik’s changing his whole life is too much, where’s the middle path?

Director Adin Walker (left), Akaina Ghosh as Agent 701 (aka PrEP), James Aaron Oh as Erik, Matt Weimer as Bryant and Troy Rockett as Jared during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Erik tries to find out via time travel. Most of us don’t get that chance, so I wondered how the producer and creative team would answer that question for themselves.

“The responsibility for all generations — old, young and everybody in between — is we need to remember that we all have something to offer the conversation,” said Decker, who said he lost his entire peer group in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. If the young have fire in their bellies, he said, the old can show them how to avoid reinventing the wheel. What drew him to the play? “The past and the present were trying to make peace with one another and grow together.”

Director Ed Decker during rehearsal for “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” at New Conservatory Theater Center in San Francisco. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle 2016

Grow together. That sounded like a wonderful answer, a goal we can all strive for in our own intergenerational relationships and grief.

Another came from the show’s 28-year-old director, Adin Walker, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, as he situated the play within a tradition of queer fantasy dramas that bend gravity and blur boundaries of space, time and reality. (Its script makes a meta-joke about its debt to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”)

Director Adin Walker gives instruction to actor Matt Weimer during rehearsal of “PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute” at New Conservatory Theater Center. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

“In the stretching of what we think are those limits of our life, we start to think about what are the other structures in our life that we want to change or reimagine,” Walker said. “We start to envision a different way of moving through the world and a different world we aspire to be in.”

To remember the past by imagining something new. Liu, Walker and the NCTC team move toward that lofty ideal by mounting this promising script. May the rest of us non-artists have our own, less-practiced imaginations ignited by bearing witness.

“PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute”: Written by Yilong Liu. Directed by Adin Walker. Previews start Friday, April 1. Through May 8. $25-$65. New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., Lower Lobby, SF 415-861-8972. www.nctcsf.org



  • lily janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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