What's on in London: Jerker, or the Helping Hand.

A revival of a play by Robert Chesley.

What's on in London: Jerker, or the Helping Hand.

Robert Chesley was a San Franciscan playwright, critic, and gay rights activist who used his theatre to celebrate sexual liberation and dramatise the toll of HIV/AIDS on the queer community.

Written in 1986, Jerker – also known as The Helping Hand – is his best-known piece.

Directed by Alastair Curtis, Syrus Lowe, Adam Silver and Ms Sharon le Grand star in this rehearsed reading of the play which will be performed at London Performance Studios.

I caught up with Alastair Curtis for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.

When did you first encounter this play?

I first read Jerker, or the Helping Hand  a couple of years ago when I began researching The AIDS Plays Project, a campaign I have founded to rediscover and revive the theatrical works of writers who died of HIV/AIDS.

Like so many of these plays, the script is now out-of-print, but when I finally managed to track down a copy I remember being bowled over by its sexuality. It is up-front and confrontational.

Once I learned more about the life of its writer, Robert Chesley, who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, its explicitness made sense.

Chesley spent his life fighting against those in the theatre, in the media and in the government who sought to stigmatise and censor gay sexuality. Jerker, which he wrote in 1986, is his witty, filthy, and heartbreaking response.

Is Jerker indicative of Chesley’s style of writing?

Chesley was an activist playwright. Those weren’t two discreet categories for him. He was writing plays in 1980s San Francisco while friends and loved ones were dying. When he wasn’t on the streets protesting against governmental inaction in the AIDS crisis he was in the theatre making work about the experience of being gay in America at a time of mass death.

His plays are ardently political, especially as he sought to dramatise aspects of gay experience that hadn’t been seen on stage before – the hyper-masculine BDSM scene, for instance, or HIV/AIDS. It is a little-known fact that ‘Night Sweat’, which Chesley wrote in 1984, was the first produced play ever to deal with the epidemic.

But as angry as his works can be, they are also tender and compassionate, with a fantastic sense of humour. Before he became a playwright, Chesley was a composer, and he produced several pieces of music inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I think people will be surprised by how poetic the play is, too.

This is a period piece – set in California in the 1980s. Is this a story that today’s audiences will be able to engage with?

I’m wary of the term period piece because it can mean audiences hold the play at a remove, as if they can’t see past the vintage telephones to understand these characters and empathise with their predicament.

When the history of queer theatre is so scarce, you have to grab at whatever you can find and assemble a culture out of what we have left — which usually isn’t a lot. Remember, the first explicitly gay plays were only staged relatively recently, in the 1950s. Re-discovering our history and learning from it is very much the intention of The AIDS Plays Project, and we believe it is a vital cause for art today – how can we be expected to make new queer theatre when so much of our history remains lost and undiscovered?

That said, I think audiences will be stunned by how sexually daring the play is. Chesley depicts two men in their 30s/early 40s having phone-sex in a completely unsensational way. They don’t know what each other look like, or where they live. Instead, they attract each other through erotic fantasies of incest, bondage, and piss-play. Their fears of abandonment and rejection mean that’s the only language available to them to articulate their growing feelings for each other. These calls become invested with all their fears and their insecurities and their need.

Viewed in that light, this is a heartbreaking play about two men trying and failing to connect. For some queer people during the early years of the AIDS crisis, when dirty calling like this thrived as a ‘safe’ way of hooking up, this was their sole outlet for sexual intimacy. To Chesley, who was always proudly sex-positive, that was tragic.

One of the challenges for the LGBTQ community is to educate ourselves and each other about the AIDS pandemic and the impact that has had/continues to have on our lives. Is theatre a potential way to do that?

The AIDS Plays Project sets out to do exactly that. I set it up in 2023 with the designers Max Allen and Elliott Adcock and the musician Helen Noir because we were frustrated that our theatres show little to no interest in recollecting and rediscovering the rich legacy of queer theatre, especially from the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis where many playwrights passed away.

If their work isn’t revived now, we worry it will remain in the archives, where it is inaccessible, or even worse – it could be lost or forgotten altogether.

Last year, we staged plays by Harry Kondoleon and Charles Ludlam with actors including Paul Hilton, Sharon Small, Mary Malone, and Sue Gives A Fuck.

Now, we hope to honour and extend the legacy of Robert Chesley. It seems to me a fitting tribute that, in 2024, his decades-old play might inspire and provoke a new generation of queer performers, writers and directors.

The AIDS crisis has denied us that basic intergenerational connection. We might, as a project, hold a space for that to happen.

What do you hope that people feel when watching this production of Jerker?

Horny! That was at least one of Chesley’s intentions when he wrote it back in 1986. He once claimed that theatre was a way for him to explore his many fetishes, including spandex, leather and watersports – and most of them feature, at one time or another, in ‘Jerker’.

More seriously, however, I want our audience to be angry at the loss of Chesley, and then I want them to transform this anger into something practical, like going home to research his life and work and learning how it changed the course of our queer history.

This was a man who taught in a New York school as an openly gay teacher — in the 1970s! Imagine! He was a prolific essayist, critic and gave several trailblazing speeches on gay sexuality. A nude photograph of him covered in KS lesions with his dick out and erect was published in The Bay Times in 1990 to remove the stigma around people with HIV/AIDS. He was a trailblazer. He was a fighter. He’s no less an indispensable part of our queer history than Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P Johnson. He fought for our right to a sex life that was free from shame and stigma. We ought to remember his name.

Jerker will be performed at London Performance Studios on 8th and 9th of March

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