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Tom Joyner: 'It's an important moment to use theatre to draw out as much empathy as possible'

PUBLISHED: 15:44 24 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:15 24 October 2019

Tibu Fortes and Tom Joyner take lead roles in Jerker at King's Head Theatre. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.

Tibu Fortes and Tom Joyner take lead roles in Jerker at King's Head Theatre. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.

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When Robert Chesley's provocative play, Jerker, premiered at a Los Angeles theatre in 1986, it had a seismic impact almost straight away.

It's the first time the play has come to London in 29 years. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.It's the first time the play has come to London in 29 years. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.

While the LA Times lauded it as "one of the most important pieces of gay theatre ever created," the folks at the United States' Federal Communications Commission were rather cross. Jerker - with its explicit language and a storyline centred on gay phone sex - triggered the release of stricter broadcast indecency guidelines, after an LA-based radio station played excerpts of its script.

Jerker arrived at Notting Hill's Gate Theatre four years later in a performance overseen by Stephen Daldry (who went on to direct Billy Elliott in 2000) but it disappeared from London's theatrical landscape thereafter. Until now, that is.

Chesley's career-defining work is back in the capital after a 29-year absence, as The King's Head Theatre opens for a short run directed by Ben Anderson. J.R., one of the two main characters, will be played by Tom Joyner.

"For me, Jerker is about finding and sharing a sense of freedom, a sense of security, and above all a sense of joy at a time when those things had to be hard-earned by the gay community," Joyner says.

Tom Joyner plays J.R. in Robert Chesley's 1986 play. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.Tom Joyner plays J.R. in Robert Chesley's 1986 play. Picture: Joseph Sinclair.

"It's a real privilege [to be involved]. Ben Anderson has resurrected this piece in the UK. The writing is so good, it's a surprise to me that it hasn't been on for almost 30 years.

"It might be that the explicitness, on the face of it, has scared people away from doing it in the past. But I'm really, really excited. I feel like it deserves a big audience, and to be a part of theatre in the UK in a way that it hasn't been. [Jerker's themes] are still very resonant today."

Set in San Francisco in the early 1980s, main characters J.R. and Bert (played by Tibu Fortes) begin a series of sexually-charged phone calls while all around them the AIDS crisis amplifies. The play follows the development of these two men individually and as a collective - although they never meet in person - with Anderson's adaption seeking to "leave you breathless before breaking your heart."

Chesley's play will open on Upper Street on Wednesday (October 30) as Jerker, but the piece actually has a second name. Rumours that the alternative title - The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty - didn't fit in to the theatre's listings are probably accurate.

Joyner is relishing the chance to appear in such an intimate two-hander. "It's daunting in theory," he explains, "but once we are inhabiting the experience and journey of the characters, we don't come up for air until the curtain falls.

"Specifically with this play, we are on the phone to each other and the two characters never meet. That's a particular challenge, and also it's an exciting opportunity as an actor to portray a relationship - a very intimate relationship - developing at a distance."

How would Joyner describe his character? "Mysterious. We don't know a lot about him. He hides behind the anonymity that the world of phone sex allows.

"Part of the show will be about him sharing parts of himself that he hasn't before. He comes in to the relationship with the other character, Bert, wanting to only give what he's comfortable giving, but that grows over time."

While almost three decades have elapsed since Jerker's last London appearance and Chesley's death - from an AIDS-related illness, in 1990 - Joyner says many of the play's themes are relatable for modern audiences.

He adds: "Yes we have come a long way, but we're not out of the woods yet. Whilst there are stories of schools protesting around banning or prohibiting LGBT literature, we have a climate where not all cultures are able to respect the LGBT community as full citizens. I think when we're still living in that world, [Jerker] is incredibly resonant.

"It's important to keep telling these stories because at the moment the world is pretty fractious. I think it's an important moment to use theatre to draw out as much empathy as possible. But also, when the writing is as good as this, the characters will remain relevant throughout time."

Joyner, who says he has "been educated during the process" of rehearsals, finishes by paying tribute to Jerker's original author.

"Robert wrote a play which was a hugely defiant act in the face of the gay community being dragged through the mud. At a time of extreme pain and difficulty, it's an empowering story which restores dignity and power.

"He was a very brilliant and brave man, [but] his name is not known. He is not well remembered compared to other voices like Armistead Maupin and Larry Kramer. [It's] really important to do it now, to show people what a brave act it was."

Jerker runs at King's Head Theatre between October 30 and November 23. For more details and tickets, click here.

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