Strange Fruit

Performance artist Tim Miller has been amply around the block; he's been touring internationally since the '80s, when he and the three other agents provocateur of the NEA Four were giving Jesse Helms hemorrhoids and igniting the culture wars with their fruit-smeared naked bodies. There's another culture war now, of course, and Miller's in the thick of it—just where he likes it. His new one-man performance piece, Us, tackles the theme of gay marriage and the general cutting down to size of homosexuals, but this time, he's added a musical theater slant. He talks about timeless themes of intolerance, persecution and deportation, especially when it comes to homosexuals. But he's also funny, which is a necessity when delivering gnarly messages that, without a laugh, would make you feel like shit.

OC Weekly: A gay performance artist incorporating show tunes into his monologue? You're kidding! Tim Miller: It sounds so clich, I know. But when I was a child, I looked to musical theater for deeper—or at least more tuneful—guidance about how the world was organized and how systems of injustice were going to rain on my parade. Forget Marx and Engels; I had Rodgers and Hammerstein! From these shows, I learned everything I needed to know about love, politics and America. Gay audiences will appreciate it, but what about straights? Do straights even come to your shows?

Well, I perform all over the country, and in North Carolina particularly, about 10 times a year—I perform there more than in California. I often do shows at colleges and universities, where I am really the only "out" gay person—except for one women's studies professor.

That's Sue.

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Yes, you know who I mean! God bless them!

Do you feel you're preaching to the choir with a gay audience?

I categorically reject that. Progressive Americans are too frightened and disempowered and unconverted to really claim any kind of power. Even when I perform for an audience that's 100 percent left-of-center lesbian and gay activists, they're actually not daring to wield their authority and power anywhere near their potential. So it gets people pissed-off and buzzed and energized. I mean, if one in 10 lesbian and gay Californians would camp out in Sacramento for a week, there'd be a million people there, and we'd solve this civil marriage thing before Easter. But we won't do that because we won't prioritize. We don't dare to take power.

And they're afraid of being labeled "radical." Gays won't even address gay issues in their own Republican families—even if those families are supportive of them individually. They won't take a stand on principle.

Exactly. Gay people have got to stop going home for Thanksgiving. Our families could also end all this bullshit in a week—after all, there's a lot more of them. The close kinship means they care about us personally. My mom is part of an OC Republican ladies group, and she thinks Bush is insane for wanting to limit the Constitution, but she won't speak about it at her Republican ladies' luncheon.

These issues hurt. It's easy to forget half the country hates your guts until someone starts in with the truth about gay oppression. How do you broach the subject but keep the audience from wanting to swallow a gun barrel?

It's a nasty problem. The notion of the show is that Alistair [his partner of 10 years] and I have given up and that we're emigrating on his British passport, where he can sponsor me as his partner—something we can't do here in this country—and we have to figure out what to take, like my 28 boxes of Broadway musical albums. I use the musicals as a little theatrical mode for certain formational moments of gay identity for when I was a kid or an adult and as a theme for radical politics. Everyone loves musicals, but they also love to hate them. They're a vital and interesting cultural source.

Do you actually perform the numbers?

Oh, heaven forbid! There is a monologue when I'm a kid getting ready to seek asylum in Canada from the Vietnam War done to "Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. I touch on other musicals in conjunction with the narrative of my life. It culminates with a sort of political striptease right out of the musical Gypsy. Larger than that is the theme that we are not welcome in this country. But there's this kind of euphoria right now in Portland and San Francisco and soon Massachusetts that "Oh, man, we're not going to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps as our country has done with the Native Americans, enslaved Africans and Japanese-Americans. Maybe we actually can have a place in our parents' house—the metaphorical parents' house."

Obviously, gays and lesbians are going to understand and get something out of your show. What do you want to say to straights—especially people who are unsure of this "new" civil right that might be bestowed upon us?

Besides getting the political message out—whether people see the show or read about it—which helps, I want to open up their empathy windows. Wide. Like French doors. Everyone, unless it's a neo-Nazi, has an empathy window. They have a way of seeing that "this person is not like me, yet somehow his or her humanness is like me." And that's why we'll win this, whether it's two years or 20 years. The real question is how much heartache and hurt is America going to tolerate until we get there?

Tim Miller performs "Us" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971, ext. 200. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $20. Reservations recommended.

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