What a great title: Ugly Is a Hard Pill. You don’t even need the phrase that follows: “that’s hard to swallow.” We get that; it’s implied. “Ugly is a hard pill” is a great phrase even when it’s not a title because you can just see people using it within unpleasant situations in which they don’t want to get to get sucked into the vortex of being unpleasant themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Bicker McBickerson arguing with one another on the 1 train just outside of Times Square waiting for a 1 train in the station to finally move: “You know, Bicker, sometimes ugly is a hard pill.” Ba-dum-bum. It’s like the whole train suddenly goes “ooooooh!,” followed by head-snaps. Or when you’re on line at the DMV and they’re having a bureaucratic breakdown and you turn to the person next to you who doesn’t speak much English but intuits from your tone that “ugly is a hard pill” isn’t “have a nice day.” Or when you’re at LaGuardia Airport and some self-important TSA idiot decides your suitcase full of Christmas gifts represents a terrorist threat. “Ugly is a hard pill,” said the traveler, under her breath.
But we digress. Ugly Is a Hard Pill is a new comedy by playwright Andrea J. Fulton, and it’s running at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., 212-868-4444) through Jan. 12. It’s not about ugly people, per se — its themes are too sophisticated for that — but it does consider “modern urban culture” from the straight, gay, bi and wow-don’t-ask-me-that points of view. Keef and Lena are the central characters and both are on the usual and proverbial down-low — but not for long and not without laughter. The word “ugly” kicks off the title because the play is about how sexual orientation — how we treat it, how it’s treated by others — impact our own lives in positive ways or in ways that are, well, ugly. Broadway veteran Leslie Dockery (Sophisticated Ladies, The Tap Dance Kid, Eubie!) directs.
And now, 5 questions Andrea J. Fulton has never been asked:
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Probably the most perceptive question has been when I am asked about how I came up with certain character traits. Similarly, people have asked if certain characters are based on actual people I’ve known. The answer is usually yes.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Honestly, I think all questions are valid and therefore reasonable. I’m an inquisitive person and I have always had my inquisitiveness encouraged. I want to consistently do that for others, too. I think people should feel like their thoughts are sensible and should be honored as long as it is not something too private when a person chooses to remain private.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I think someone asked me if I knew how to paint faces or juggle. They said that I was so smart and so creative and knew how to do so many things so I probably knew how to paint faces and how to juggle, too. Pretty silly.
4) As described, Ugly Is a Hard Pill views gay, straight and bisexual relationships in our modern, urban culture. How does your play illuminate these relationships differently than what everyday folks may already think they know about them?
In showing things to which everyone can relate, it humanizes each culture to which you may not belong and thereby makes you realize that people so unlike you can be just like you. We all have more things in common than we have different. This is a realization that serves to bind and sort of levels the playing field. The play shows that regardless of your background or sexual preference, we all have the same challenges, temptations, weaknesses. We all have the same capabilities and the same power.
5) For you, personally, what has been the most frustrating moment as to how African Americans perceive and treat members of the LGBT community? And in that moment of highest frustration for you, what did you choose to say or do about what you heard or what was said?
In order to best answer this, please indulge a fairly lengthy anecdote:
During the casting process I realized I needed to find a second African-American male to share the lead male role because the first one I brought on had some schedule conflicts and could not do all of the shows. I realized I would encounter an unanticipated hurdle: negotiating the murky waters of African-American manhood threatened by something I learned was bigger than me and them.
I got this lesson when, for a second time in a row, I found a man who I thought could be perfect for the role. He was also a professional actor so it never occurred to me that anything would supersede his thirst for that next great role. I had no idea there could be so much against which I would come.
Despite the advantages, he flatly declined my offer upon realizing the sexuality aspects involved in the role.
And, mind you, there was no real physical intimacy written into the script, not so much as any hand holding. I gave wide latitude for personal discretion and interpretation between the actors and the director.
I asked him about his feelings and he explained how he had long ago discussed with his wife where he would draw his lines in acting and this is where he had drawn one of them. I asked why and he indicated “it was not the kind of thing he wanted to teach his son.”
What did I do or say in that moment when for a second time I was amidst someone else’s journey that was, to me, more difficult than mine? I met it first with some understanding and respect. I was disappointed but more for him.
After I showed the man some basic respect by telling him I heard and accepted his decision not to participate, I felt compelled to give him some things to think about. I thought it was worth a try to share with him a perspective that maybe he had not considered. After all, I knew he was a member of minority group himself and so I thought maybe that alone would allow him to be open and more compassionate regarding the other minority group to which he did not belong and was judging adversely.
I explained that his play has the potential to bring people together to cause us to see common goals and problems and challenge us to begin addressing them together for us as individuals and for the benefit of the collective society.
He was not swayed. He was so completely entrenched in his own way of thinking. This I think is unfortunately what can or has happened when people have been as a group, minimized or victimized. As a result, they may tend to work that much harder to protect whatever values they hold dear, particularly the ones that say their unit is potentially compromised when people of the same sex choose to partner. It can perhaps be seen as an affront or threat potentially serving to undermine their sense of family. I am not a historian, psychologist or sociologist, just someone in a multitude of subsets myself, trying not to be defined or limited by them and in fact hopping to give others a potential way out of the same such holes in which so many fall in and cannot put themselves up and out.
6) In America today, diversity is less a novel idea as an accepted, expected, demanded part of civic and cultural life. Do we therefore still need plays by and for members of specific ethnicities, religions or “special interest groups”? If so, what function do they still serve?
We still need them because there is an assumption that seems to be true: that it is members of a specific group that can most understand and therefore theoretically best convey the nature of specific experiences and circumstances. Does one need to know how to drive and possess a driver’s license in order to design or build highways or cars? No. Functioning and being successful in certain things requires some intellectual effort, some learning and then some practice.
But when it comes to creating and/or helping to evoke emotions, when it comes to touching or healing, I can think of no better way to invoke or inspire emotions more than having had them. As such, especially when there has not historically been a place of solace to go and share in experiences that only certain others can truly understand, it is probably not only helpful but needed to look around and on stage and know you are not alone, that someone does get you and share in what has sometimes been your unique yet common plight.
But the best way to answer this question is as a result of an experience I had just a couple days ago. I approached two guys to invite them to the play and gave them flyers. One seemed possibly Hispanic, the other possibly of Polynesian ancestry. As one looked down at what I had handed him, he looked at the picture of the cast that consisted of the entire range of possible skin tones and he looked back up at me and beamed, queried and exclaimed all at once: “Alas! This a play that has gay themes and includes people of color?! I said yes. He said “Hallelujah…What a miracle!… How wonderful!” So, should one conclude that what I am doing is needed based on those kinds of responses? I think so.
And to answer the last part of your question: What function do they still serve? It seems like it will serve a purpose of instilling hope and promise that the world is not narrowly portrayed and therefore not narrow minded. That means there is the promise of inclusion, of acceptance and appreciation for differences and there is a way to feel normal and valid and like a real part of a bigger picture that proves they exist and have meaning and worth. Where there is a chance to be seen, there is a chance to be felt. Where there is a chance to be felt, there is a chance to be understood. When we can be understood we can feel important. When we can feel important we can feel empowered to make a difference in our own lives and also in the lives of others and that is what the play is all about.