A new play by Ana Brown and Andrew Russell from Intiman Theatre is based on a controversy that broke out at the 2008 Gay Softball World Series in Seattle.
Imagine your amateur team has battled its way into the highly competitive 2008 Gay Softball World Series, held in Seattle. Fired up, you go on to win a second-place victory in your division in the national championship.
But before the Champagne corks can pop, you and four other players are summoned and interrogated about your sexuality by a committee protesting your win.
After this intrusive grilling, two of you are deemed homosexual while three are deemed non-gay. And since the rules of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance at that time allow only two heterosexuals per team, your trophy is revoked.
‘John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter’
by Ana Brown and Andrew Russell. Previews start Tuesday, Aug. 18; show runs Aug. 20-Sept. 27 at Cornish Playhouse, Seattle Center. Tickets start at $20. (206-315-5838; intiman.org)
This really did happen to San Francisco’s D2 softball team, in the gay World Series of 2008 in Seattle, resulting in a widely covered lawsuit by the singled-out players. They insist they were not given the option of being included as bisexuals.
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Seattle screenwriter Ana Brown believed the incident had all the makings of an engrossing drama about sports, discrimination and sexual identity. Now she and co-author Andrew Russell are in the final inning of preparing the Intiman Theatre premiere of “John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter,” an ambitious, large-cast play inspired by the D2 incident. It opens at Cornish Playhouse next week.
“What happened raised the question of whether your sexuality is something you have to claim publicly, or can keep private,” Brown says. “I also wanted to look at the variety of layers around oppression and safety, exclusion and inclusion, among groups of people who don’t feel safe.”
She names “safety” as a pivotal reason for having predominantly gay softball teams, since homosexuals have often experienced bigotry in other athletic settings — and few professional sports players have been emboldened to come out.
“There is a fear about how are you going to treat me, judge me, as a gay athlete,” according to Brown. “The league was formed when gay men and women couldn’t be themselves on a traditional softball team.”
For victims of bigotry to then appear to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexuality is a glaring irony raised in the play.
Another theme, says co-author and Intiman artistic director Russell, is how one perceives other people’s sexual preferences and the assumptions routinely made that are reinforced by media and social categorizing. “We’re asking audiences to look at the narratives we write for people based on how they look, how they talk, how they seem, and question those assumptions.”
Rosi Joshi, the production’s director, agrees. “People’s sexuality lives in the gray area,” she says. “I think that ambiguity makes us uncomfortable.”
Brown first conceived her project as a movie. Russell joined the project, but their application to develop the script at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab in Utah was rejected. “When you have a passion project with political content, it’s hard to to get it off the ground,” says Brown.
But Russell urged her to consider adapting the concept for the stage, as a possible Intiman attraction. Though that would take an actual baseball diamond out of the picture, they could exploit the open-ended theatrical license that allowed an earlier play about gays in sports, Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” to successfully evoke the world of pro baseball and its players through the viewer’s imagination.
Over time “John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter” evolved as a serio-comic story piece in which Baxter, who is engaged to a woman, becomes a prized member of a gay San Francisco softball crew which, in Russell’s words, “is tough, athletic and down some players. John is recruited at the last minute, before the championships, and becomes the spark for a lot of distrust.”
His counterweight in the script is Lyle, a gay tech worker who plays for a rival Seattle team and is strongly affected by the emotional and political fallout from the controversy that ensues over whether Baxter is gay, straight or bisexual.
To capture some of the flavor and excitement of the playing field calls, the production calls for a relatively large ensemble of 18 actors, 10 of them serving as members of two softball teams. Director Joshi’s staging, designed by Jared Roberts, prominently features a set of bleachers.
Reflecting the racial diversity on the field, half of the Intiman cast are actors of color. And as often happens, and another source of irony, the actors are not cast by their own sexual leanings.
“We have straight men playing gays, gays playing straights,” reveals Russell. “I think that’s wonderful, and can lead to a more fruitful dialogue. We want this to provoke a big conversation about how we share space on the field, if not the planet.”
Joshi considers softball “a visual metaphor for the world. It’s embedded in (the American) psyche as a game we believe brings us together as a community.”
The debut of “John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter” arrives at a moment when self-identification, racially and culturally as well as sexually, is increasingly fluid in our society.
It’s a period when a white civil-rights activist, former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, so identified with African Americans that she passed herself off as a black woman.
And when Olympic decathlon champ Bruce Jenner, one of America’s best-known and seemingly most macho sports icons, is chronicling his sex change in a reality-TV show. (Though there’s been much interest in how Bruce now identifies as Caitlyn, failing ratings of his show “I Am Cait” and ugly social-media backlash over his transformation have prompted Jenner to seek assistance from the Human Rights Campaign.)
And what about “faking” a sexual proclivity? It was revealed last week that Michigan state Rep. Todd Courser planned to fabricate a gay-sex scandal as a smoke screen to divert attention from his extramarital affair with fellow Republican Rep. Cindy Gamrat.
On tape, Courser told an aide he believed pretending he had sex with a male prostitute would make his actual affair with a woman seem “mundane, tame by comparison.”
“People will come to the show with different life experiences and stories about their own sexual journeys,” contends Russell. “But the only way to truly improve the situation for everybody is to do it together.”
And the outcome of the lawsuit against the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA), brought by the National Center for Lesbian Rights on behalf of the three expelled D2 team members? They sought damages, claiming they were discriminated against because they were bisexuals who were labeled “too straight” to participate in the gay World Series.
In 2011, U.S. District Judge John Coughenour affirmed the right of the alliance to limit the number of straight players in order to provide openly gay, bisexual and transgender individuals more athletic opportunities.
But the plaintiffs scored a win, also. NAGAAA issued a public apology to the San Francisco team, and said disqualifying it in the manner it did was not consistent with the organization’s goals.
And the D2s got their trophy back.