How We Talk After Death: Reflecting on Teddy Ferrarra

by: Patrick Gill

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Two weeks ago I ambled into The Goodman for a show. Wrapped in an old cardigan, I was tired from work, I got a small coffee.  It was just enough to go over my level, but I like to be alert at shows.  That said I did have a double scotch by the intermission.  Teddy Ferrara warrants a mid-show drink.

I have seen some theater in Chicago, across the Northside—in small rooms and larger institutions, a few storefronts and mid sized rooms, once at Steppenwolf, but never The Goodman.  I was excited to see a play there, when I step into a new theater, and so many are new to me,  the excitement is doubled.  I felt like I should have at least combed my hair.  I did scrub up in the bathroom sink at work, just a touch.

Teddy Ferrara takes you as you are though.  It does have some rather poignant notes on gay men’s dismissals of peers due to appearance. Even still, it sweeps you in and doesn’t really want you to wander, there are many characters and intersections and exchanges you have to make.  It’s close to college life in that way.

The performances were grounded, in spite of the flurry of circumstances that occur across the play.  Though some of the tropes of “seducing that straight guy” and “lesbians and gender variant persons are always the tough activists” are used, they are handled with care, especially the activist one—played superbly by Jax Jackson and Kelli Simpkins.

As reliable as some narrative turns could be, there were many refreshing aspects: That the cast wasn’t all White people dealing with LGBTQ issues.  The interactions between the president and provost of the college (the bumbling politic and the sharp guide, trying to exchange with a community that has always existed but was never named by their generation*) proved insightful; as were the haunting silhouettes of Teddy’s cam chats, in prone position with flitty mannerisms playing over dance pop pulsing through headphones– it was dark no matter how light his tone was. Teddy, played by Ryan Heindl, could have also been played as “that twink” who lived a tragedy – instead he was portrayed until to his last scene with the depth much of media is unwilling to give to effeminate young gay men.

All of the performers, you could feel it, brought themselves wholly to the story; there was an underlying desire to get it right, the experience of college, intimate relationships, friendship, sexual and identity politics, and personal processing of what turns into national tragedy (it was inspired in large part by the Tyler Clementi suicide at Rutgers).  Teddy Ferrarra did suffer from length, but the actors worked to quell that.

It is because of the passion of these actors that I feel it is impossible to walk away without the questions posed throughout the play rattling in your mind.  There were many.  Who and to what degree are we responsible for each other’s safety, especially in the LGBTQ community?  What can be done, especially in colleges or schools, to affirm and make comfortable all people?  Who is to be held accountable when suicide occurs, or is accountability something we should be asking for?  Others even will pick up on ones I might have missed or not mentioned, that’s one of the small beauties of this play.

The ones that I carried the longest, that spoke the loudest, had to do with how we talk about a person after their death.  Teddy kills himself, after learning that his roommate (without consent) recorded/ live streamed him having sex with a man and was still blithely passed over by peers– people who said they want to get to know him.  Soon his image is enveloped in a shrine of pity and anger.  His death is taken in myriad ways, producing more divergent prevention methods.  But not many talk about who Teddy was (not many knew).  He becomes a face to a problem rather than a person.  Is this okay?  Is this a necessary sacrifice?  Can we have a face as well as a whole person behind, or would that convolute  larger discussions?

When one reporter does dig deeper and finds out Teddy was a staple of a cam sex site, it is quieted.    What do we say about the dead, even if it is considered unsavory?  What is our need to make someone who has died somehow purer now, unwilling to discuss the incredibly complex person,  to let them be only one thing  after they are gone?  It would allegedly make a case for him being less of a victim.  Because cases are what is made of death now, when someone commits suicide.  It’s understandable to not want private matters take over a person’s life narrative, but is erasing them or ignoring them better?

Ultimately this lead to the loudest idea for me.  How and why do we politicize suicide?  Is it right to start a movement or take actions in the name of someone, saying this is for someone, without ever even taking the time to learn who they were or know them?  When we make someone we barely knew a martyr, do we take away some of who they really were?   Is it right to give someone a political legacy when their actions, to them, may have been devoid of political thought? When does a death become more?  Moreover when, how, should and do we proceed after a suicide of someone belonging to an oppressed group?

I struggle to see whole people even when they are alive, so I try not to attach too much of a myth to the dead.  I try even harder not to get someone’s story wrong, because I believe that is what you have, beyond your possessions and your body. But when you begin to see and to know the pain, of isolation and misinterpretation; when you just wished for a better day and you witness another life lost, when you realize degradation can be systemic; when loss becomes repetitive, but never redundant, it is impossible to do nothing.

I am unsure of the proper way to honor someone dead that I don’t know, but I understand that people will fight in another’s name to make sure we don’t lose another.  I just hope there is respect there, and truth.

Teddy Ferrara’s turn at The Goodman has ended, but it was built with the intention of outliving a run.

 

 

*There is a scene, I call it the Circle of Mansplaining, in which Patrick Clear as the President cannot let another person speak or take a hint about how incredibly thoughtless he is being– while pacing around a comittee of LGBTQ representatives that he convened as damage control to early accusations of non-inculsion.  I had a clear view of Simpkins, Jackson, and Christopher Imbrosciano for this, their reaction, sweet all things considered holy, were the highlight of this play.  Also the touch of changing Diversity to Social Justice, because Diversity was to “occular” (just because you have a room full of diverse people doesn’t mean your doing anything), so many claps from me.

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