New play Shove It Down My Throat asks us to reconsider what homophobic violence looks like
Johnnie Walker's latest theatre piece digs into the complexities — and misconceptions — of hate crimes
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Early in the morning of January 1, 2013, 19-year-old self-described "queer anarchist" Luke O'Donovan was involved in an incident at a New Year's party in Atlanta. A group of men — between five and 12, according to different recollections — verbally and physically attacked O'Donovan in an alleged act of homophobia. And O'Donovan fought back, stabbing five of them while also being stabbed three times himself. But while O'Donovan was charged with five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, none of his attackers received a single charge.
Facing a 110-year sentence if convicted by a jury, O'Donovan took a plea deal: two years in prison followed by eight years of probation and, thanks to an archaic state law, banishment from Georgia with the exception of one small county far from his home.
Toronto artist and playwright Johnnie Walker first read about Luke O'Donovan in 2014.
"There were a couple of pieces that went out that summer on Vice and Huffington Post," Walker tells CBC Arts. "And it was just one of those things. I've never been quite sure why exactly because obviously every day we read about horrific injustices all over the world, but that one just really got under my skin."
Walker was at a point where he had just finished some other projects and didn't have a play that he was working on at the time.
"I had the space in my mind for it," he says. "And I guess when I heard about the story I just felt compelled to do something. I was like, 'I want to do something to help the situation. What can I do?' And one of things I actually know how to do as a human being is write a play."
That moment evolved into the play Shove It Down My Throat, which is having its world premiere opening at Buddies in Bad Times this week. An unconventional take on O'Donovan's story, it's told through Walker's own eyes as he sets to investigate what really happened. And it's the result of five years of research, writing and workshops for Walker and his collaborators.
"The first thing I did was to reach out to Luke's support committee," Walker recalls. "I pitched them on the concept and I was like, 'Do you think is this useful?' Because at the time, I knew so little about the story and didn't know if this is something that everyone thinks would be a terrible idea. These are real people going through real legal stuff and I didn't want to be exploitative or jump in there if it's not welcome. But the support committee was like, 'We think that he could actually be really interested in that — definitely write him and see what he thinks.' So I wrote him a letter and he got back to me pretty quickly and was like, 'Oh, I'd love it, please do it.'"
From there, a moment that really "cracked open" what the show would come to be was when Walker read Meredith Talusan's Archipelago article "The Queer Case of Luke O'Donovan."
"It's an amazing piece of journalism that was a huge influence on the story and really exploded the simpler ideas of what Luke's narrative was," Walker says. "And it just sort of brought this world of shades of grey and complication and all of these different figures who had all these strange influences over the story — like this mother who had media connections and would shut down stories about Luke [portraying the incident as gay-bashing], or the woman who took him to a hospital. So I ended up getting in touch with Meredith and interviewing them as well."
After a series of workshops, the show started to ramp up last spring when they started casting for the production.
"We cast both from workshops and from auditions," Walker says. "We would joke sometimes that it feels like every queer actor in the city has been in some workshop or some version of this. We had a lot of wonderful people come through the show and then some weren't available for the production or some that it was just the chemistry of assembling that ensemble that operates so much as a chorus. Just balancing out those energies was really hard."
Walker found his balance, and now Shove It Down My Throat is finally being unleashed into the world with hopes of changing how people view violence.
"I hope it surprises people and I hope that it allows them to kind of check some of their own internal biases," Walker says. "I think that's a big part of the show. And also to reconsider what violence is and what constitutes it. What do we write off as not abuse and not trauma and not violence? Where do different people draw the line? I think a big question in the show is, 'What is technically the start of the fight and who do you say has instigated something? Is language violence or is only physical violence violence?' I think for me, it's really about questions."
Another big question explored in the show is what the victim of a hate crime is supposed to look like.
"I think we still have this idea of Matthew Shepard," Walker says. "That is a very constructed image...For me it's less about whether or not it's accurate but more — does that matter? Does somebody need to be this sweet innocent lamb who didn't fight back and was just martyred? Why do we not allow ourselves to accept sympathy to more complicated people who perhaps were able to hold their own in a fight, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they had it coming?"
Ultimately, Shove It Down My Throat doesn't aim to actually answer these questions — instead, it forces us to consider that when it comes to incidents like Luke O'Donovan's, the answer is more complicated than what we've been trained to believe.
Shove It Down My Throat. Written by Johnnie Walker. Directed by Tom Arthur Davis. To April 14. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. www.buddiesinbadtimes.com