Dallas — Many of us probably have burning questions about someone who appeared in our lives for a hot second, months or years or decades ago, that go beyond “what if” and “where are they now?” For Dallas actor Terry Vandivort, that person played a brief but unforgettable role in a harrowing event in his life, and haunted him for years until an unexpected reappearance led to further investigation.
He tells of it in fascinating and often poetic (“the skeletal branches of post-Thanksgiving trees”) detail in his one-man play The Incident, directed by Cameron Cobb as part of two repertory shows for The Drama Club at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus. The other show is Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time (review coming soon on TheaterJones).
Along the way we also get a look at the gay scene in Dallas in the 1970s and beyond, commentary on how technology and cultural shifts have changed, well, everything, and some insight into the man telling the story. Some might insist that with the latter, there’s maybe too much information.
But that’s what makes The Incident so visceral. Vandivort opens himself up, and his truth is part of a compelling web woven along the way.
Vandivort has long been a favorite of audiences and critics on local stages; a recent example being Theatre Three’s 2015 production of The Fantasticks as the actor Mortimer, whose specialty is dying on stage. In The Incident, he lets his storytelling skills take over, those expressive eyes framed by a topographical face and silver hair and goatee.
His story begins as a young man in the 1970s, and like a lot of other gay men at the time, a favorite pastime was casual, anonymous sex. That hasn’t changed, of course, but the places and methods of finding it have.
The bar scene isn’t dead, but the gayborhood in Dallas (Cedar Springs/Oak Lawn) has certainly cleaned up as same-sex marriage, gay families and depictions of gay characters on TV have become part of mainstream America.
Now it’s easy to go to Grindr and the internet for express hook-ups. Then it was the bar scene. The Cedar Springs strip that is now populated with shops, baby strollers and heterosexual partiers was in its infancy, and there were a few off-the-strip spots, such as the Crews Inn on Fitzhugh (which is now B.J.’s). Vandivort details his preferences of hook-up locations, the men in them (he was especially fond of black men) and his sexual specialties (you’ll have to see it learn more about that). When the bars didn’t work, there were public spaces notorious for gay hook-ups such as Flagpole Hill (interesting that he didn’t mention the woods surrounding the venue where this performance happens), the baths, and a cluster of seedy “bookstores” in the Harry Hines Blvd./Northwest Highway area, which has long been locally famous for prostitutes, strip clubs and fetish shops.
“With the opening of the door comes the closing of speculation,” Vandivort says about entering such a space and instantly sizing up the potential(s). “It’s a nocturnal parade at the arcade.”
One particular night, what looks to be a hook-up with a dude he hasn’t seen before turns into a nightmare when they go to the car and there are two other guys there, armed with knives. This is where Vandivort’s story gets the heart racing. What had been a story that might be uncomfortable for some patrons because of its frank sexuality turns into something from a true crime page-turner.
Needless to say, Vandivort survived. The night would stay with him, and was reignited when he saw a mugshot on a local TV news program nine years later. I won’t spoil the rest of it (there are two more performances), but it relates to a story that dominated local news in 1989, and a person whose story is accessible through the wonder of the internet. There’s even a book written about him.
That part of Vandivort’s tale is the driving force of The Incident, but there’s much to learn about what is merely hinted at in the twisty, suspenseful thread.
He would later visit the scene of the incident. The bars and bookstores of 1979 are gone, and the people are too. He never uses the acronyms HIV or AIDS, but the implication is obvious. The ghosts of that time are still with him. “Does it live with me like a virus? Well I’ve already got a virus,” he says.
Cobb’s staging is simple. Vandivort mostly sits in an arm chair at center stage, but sometimes meanders to either side of the stage and closer to the audience. There are a few set details and some projected video that add layers to the storytelling.
At the performance reviewed, Vandivort held his script in a black notebook so that he could refer to it and stay on track, and unfortunately it became an unnecessary, distracting prop. A few times he read passages without looking up. Apparently he was off-book when the Drama Club was originally going to do this show in the summer, but has had to become reacquainted after they moved it (and the rehearsal schedule) to the fall slot.
Here’s hoping he lets it go in these last few performances. What is already an engrossing performance would be greatly improved if his hands were freed up to add expressiveness. Vandivort was also hard to hear a few times at the edges of the stage.
But he has written a chilling, lyrical story and put himself out there in way that few performers or writers would dare do.
It might be the bravest performance of the year.
» The Incident runs in repertory with Wild, Wicked, Wyrd: Fairytale Time. Our review of that is here