The “F” Word
About Face Theatre is thrilled to be presenting the Chicago premiere of Bixby Elliot’s play, ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T. We hope this play will incite exciting conversation around relevant issues including the absence of LGBT figures in history, how we use language to empower and educate, and the importance of mentors for queer youth. To this end, we are busy planning another round of Sunday Symposium discussions as well as a series of blog posts exploring these issues and themes stemming from the show.
To kick off this blog series, we invited playwright Bixby Elliot to share some of his thoughts and feelings around the title of the show. We hope this post will be enlightening for you and will ignite a dialogue that we look forward to continuing over the course of the next couple of months (and beyond!)
Why the F Word?
by Bixby Elliot
Several years ago my partner Paul brought home a set of vintage books. He loves to collect things (he says “vintage, sometimes I say “junk”) and often I am surprised with things such as, taxidermy frogs playing the bongos or portraits of society ladies with fangs and vampire bites (he paid way too much for that one). One time he surprised me with a set of books. They were called Step Up Books – educational books for kids. This series was on the presidents. George Washington: A Step Up Book. John F. Kennedy: A Step Up Book. Abraham Lincoln: A Step Up Book.
I picked up the book with the bearded man and the stove pipe hat and I started flipping through the pages and reading the reductive, watered down retelling of Abraham Lincoln’s life (“Abraham was tall. Abraham read a lot of books. Abraham married Mary Todd”). Not only was it poorly written but it lacked any substance or nuance. Where were the moral dilemmas that he faced, the crippling melancholia he lived with and, something I had been hearing about for several years…all the rumors of his sexuality? “Shouldn’t kids be exposed to the complexity of our American heroes?”, I thought. “Why do our president’s have to be unblemished or one dimensional – why can’t they be who they really are? Why can’t we learn about the true and authentic life of Abe Lincoln?” My mind started spinning.
That night I crawled into bed with Paul (along with our aging dog and two cats – the bed gets crowded) and lay in the darkness thinking about all of this. Paul was snoring (he will deny this) and the moon was coming in through the window. Then all at once I rolled over and said, “What if I wrote a play called ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A FAGGOT”? He woke up from a deep sleep. His eyes widened. He let out a loud laugh and said, “That is a good idea,” and went back to sleep.
At that moment, the idea was lodged in my brain and I began a journey writing this play – a journey that is culminating in the production of ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A FAGGOT at About Face Theater. I am overjoyed that AFT is producing this play. It’s really a dream come true! I am aware, however, that when the AFT season was announced, there might have been some raising of eyebrows and a question or two about the title of this play and that many might be wondering, “Why the F word”? That is a great question.
There are several things I start to discuss when people ask me about the title. One, I talk about that first moment laying in bed with my partner. The way it captured his attention and he literally woke up. I would like to awaken people to the play, to capture their minds and their imaginations from the very beginning. The title announces that we are going to go right to the heart of the matter – we aren’t going to pussy foot around and walk on eggshells. This is a play about Abraham Lincoln, our nation’s greatest president, and the idea that he is a big ol’ mo. And, I believe, that it announces that we are going to have some fun…this is gonna be fun! The title is dynamic and exciting and, yes, controversial. The title isn’t ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A GAY GUY or ABRAHAM LINCOLN LIKED TO HAVE SEX WITH GUYS. The title is ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS A F*GG*T.
The second thing I always start to discuss is the idea that the title indicates some kind of radical nature of the play. Many think the play will be this revolutionary, political treatise on taking back the word “fag” and reclaiming it and owning it and doing so in the context of tearing down our beloved Abe Lincoln. That is actually not what the play is and not what I am trying to do with the title. The play itself is really funny and touching and, I hope, moving. It is the exploration of a young man’s journey to understand his authentic self through this framework of Abe Lincoln’s sexuality.
Which leads to me third point I make. The title is not the slur of a bigot – it is the voice of our young man who has been labeled with this epithet and is trying to empower himself. He is saying “I am a faggot and Abraham Lincoln is a faggot…and that is a good thing.” I know that is convoluted but it makes a big difference to me – the difference between hatred and empowerment.
Frankly, I love that starting with just the title, we are already having a dialogue about sexuality and language and politics and many other things, because that is what I find super exciting about theater. I want people to talk about theater. I want to engage them and have them laugh and cry and gasp and, yes, talk about it. I want people to go over to Boystown or the Gold Coast or Andersonville and get a drink or a coffee or a whatever and run into a friend who says, “Oh gosh, I am not going to see that play because of the title,” and be engaged in a discussion right there in Starbucks around the pros and cons of the title and even the the larger question of language and empowerment as a whole. It is exciting that this play has the possibility to entertain and encourage robust discussion. That is the magic and joy of theater!
I hope that you will come see the play. I hope that if you are having feelings or thoughts about the title (either good or bad) that you will move towards those feelings (not away from them) and join us. After the play you can come up and tell us what you thought and we can talk about it and it will be awesome! Awesome!