Two Sides, One Human Story :: David Gow on ’Cherry Docs’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 21, 2010

"Michael knows something is wrong with him," offers playwright David Gow, who is standing backstage just after the New England premiere of his play Cherry Docs. "He keeps trying to figure out what it is, but he can't quite manage it."

The character Gow is speaking about, Michael Downey, is a young Toronto skinhead who has killed an immigrant in a fit of blind, drunken fury. His weapon: the steel-toed boots he wears, cherry-colored Doc Martens--part of the "skinhead uniform." Mike's victim did not die in the alley where he was set upon by the skinhead; rather, he lingered for a few weeks, long enough to compose a statement the outlines the grievous injuries he sustained in the attack. A reading of that statement comes along in the play's latter half, at just the right moment; it's a scene of potent emotional charge that leads to a furious meltdown of guilt and protest, a burst of pure mental static that breaks down the character who reads it aloud--allowing him to build himself up once again, step by trembling step.

The lawyer the state has provided for his defense is Daniel Dunkleman, a Jewish liberal. Far from being dismayed over the identity of his lawyer, Mike is jubilant. Dunkleman is just what he needs: a liberal whose own personal standards require him to do his best on Mike's behalf. As for Mike, "In an ideal world, I'd see you eliminated," he tells Danny coolly. "But in this one, I need you more than anyone else." Faced with such intractable contempt and hatred, how can anyone maintain his professional--and personal--composure?

Cherry Docs is a harrowing journey that takes place entirely in the confines of a small, white room--and in the minds of the two men locked within it. Mike dwells in his cell physically, but psychologically Danny is just as much a prisoner. Both men grapple with their hatred and anger, but Danny sees the situation in Biblical terms, telling Mike that the legal ordeal before him is akin to threading a needle--an apt reference to the episode in the New Testament, when Jesus makes a similar comparison to the difficulty of getting into Heaven.

The Biblical references don't stop there. The play's scenes take play across six specific days at various points along the preparation for Mike's trial. The play itself is a meditation on the age-old issue of good and evil; Mike is not evil in and of himself, but what Danny understands (and drives himself nuts trying to get Mike to comprehend) is that the struggle is always primarily an internal one. Mike's sin and failure is to externalize that struggle by demonizing a scapegoat: immigrants, he decides, are The Enemy to besieged white men like himself.

As Mike starts to examine his beliefs and behavior, Danny, too, finds that he must reexamine the truths he once thought were self-evident. Most troubling, he's no longer quite so sure about the "truths" regarding himself.

"The play was first produced twelve years ago, and now it seems as topical as ever," Gow said, with more than a hint of regret in his voice. "Suddenly, in the newspapers, the headlines are all about these poor kids being bullied and killing themselves. When does it stop?"

Cherry Docs is what they call a tour de force: compelling, often uncomfortable theater that electrifies the audience with palpable currents of shock, sympathy, and humor. The play had a similar genesis, its roots tracing back to the beating a friend of the playwright suffered at the hands-actually, the boot-of a random attacker, one of a group of skinheads who targeted Gow's friend for being gay.

"That was certainly the point at which I woke up to what was going on in the streets of Montreal, which is where I was living at that time," Gow told EDGE. "A good friend of mine, Jeff, was a young man studying theater with me at Concordia University at the time. He [showed up] at school with a huge black and blue eye-it was almost comical. I said, 'Is that real?,' because in the theater department you could have a made-up eye. And he said, 'Yeah, that's real.' I said, 'What happened?' And he said, 'I was sitting on some steps in the gay village and a group of skinheads walked by, and one of them stopped, looked at me, and kicked me right in the eye with the heel of his boot--lifted his heel up and kicked me right in the face.' I said, 'For what?' He said, 'Well, because I was queer and I was sitting in the gay village, and he took exception to that somehow.' "

Gow goes on to recollect, "Around that time there were one or two gay men who were actually murdered by skinheads in the park, Park Mt. Royal, an area where people go to hike--it's like Central Park in New York. At night it was a place where gay men would meet in those days."

It was not such a stretch to see the skinhead of Gow's play attacking a racial minority, given anti-immigrant and white supremacist attitudes that are associated with the skinhead movement. Moreover, "In my mind, there's a connection between the Jewish cause and the gay cause when we look at Nazism, when we look at fascism, when we look at intolerance in society," Gow told EDGE. "We have to look at the spectrum of prejudices, and the spectrum of people against whom they are directed, and not get caught up [in prejudice ourselves].

"Similarly, I think that in today's era we have to look at how laws [directed at specific targeted demographics like] Muslim people, or people of Muslim extraction, who are theoretically or even actually involved in some kind of terroristic activity. We have to look at how those laws affect the whole of society, as well, because [such laws] very seldom will just stay with one group. If you can say it's illegal for Jewish people to own property, it's not too hard to say gay people can't own property."

Gow noted that in the course of its various productions--in different languages and across continents--his play has attracted audience members of all stripes. Even at the Toronto world premiere, "There were people who had turned up who were wearing pink triangles. At the same time, there were veterans from the Second World War in their 80s who had medals on their uniforms, and you had also recently released prison inmates who were covered in tattoos. I looked around sand said, 'Man, is this play's really attracting people who are clearly identifying themselves with markers, one way or the other!' "

Gow spoke about having directed Steel Toes, the film version of Cherry Docs. "It was difficult to translate it in the sense that the theater piece has done very well in terms of how much it's been produced," the playwright said. "I was rather attached to the form that you see in the theater, and the lengthy monologues--soliloquies, of a kind--in which there's a great deal of introspection and self-assessment. In classical theater terms, they are quite lengthy.

"Once you dehumanize a group of people to the point that you don't just want them out of your face, you think they'd be better off dead--that form of supremacy is such dangerous territory to dance into as a society."

"When you move into cinema, you're trying to tell essentially the same story, although with a different apparatus. Many of the strengths of the play that would translate into cinema were kept, so it's still a story that's told through a series of dialogues, one of which is over 25 minutes in length--it's like a one-act play within the play, and it's the longest scene in the play, as well as in the film. In the film, of course, you can have many other visual embellishments of the world in which these characters are living. With more time and more resources I could have explored that even further, but I think [the film] works well," Gow added. "I think the core of the story is these two men, and how they find a way to coexist in spite of the declared hatred of one for the other, and the evident of disgust of one for the other.

"I think that is the real challenge of the piece, whether it's presented in theater or film," Gow noted. "How do you find a way to coexist with people if they declare that they hate you, or they declare that they are disgusted by you?"

Playwriting and Prejudice

In his own life, Gow has had glancing encounters with just such prejudices. "I had to send a letter to one neighbor asking him to stop referring to Jews as 'dirty Jews,' " Gow told EDGE. "Boy, that really stirred up a hornet's nest. We had letters going back and for and everything. You can think in life that you've gone beyond these things, because you live a middle or upper-middle class neighborhood, and still run slam into them. And, of course, in one's own view of the world it's easy enough to see a gay friend as a 'gay friend,' instead of thinking of him first and foremost as 'a friend.' "

It's a writer's job to understand his characters intimately-to know their thoughts and motivations, not simply describe their actions. The contrasts between Danny and Mike are striking, and so are the parallels between them; Gow addressed this, telling EDGE, "I didn't have too much trouble to get into the head of the lawyer, although technically in some way that was a bigger job because a lawyer is operating with a certain kind of training and belief set. They have ethical considerations and concerns, they have compartmentalization between personal life, private past, private present, desired future."

Mike the skinhead, on the other hand, "is much less compartmentalized. Initially, it was harder for me to get into the mindset of head his character," Gow recollected. "I remember somebody gave me note early in the process, when the skinhead was saying, "We would like to have all the minorities removed from our country"--though he said this in much more colorful language. This person who was reading the role for me wrote a note in the corner of the page that he didn't even expect me to see: "His thinking goes further than this." When I reflected on this, I realized that [people with this mindset] didn't just want foreigners out of Canada--they wanted them dead.

"Getting into that mindset is extreme," Gow observed. "I once had a taxi driver from Rwanda pull over to explain to me the situation in his home country-he said to me, 'My country is so far gone, the fights are so deep and so powerful, that the first thing you have to do is kill everyone. Then, and only then, you might have some people come in from elsewhere who might have a peaceful life with one another.' That's an extremist mindset that I think we're encountering all the more. Once you dehumanize a group of people to the point that you don't just want them out of your face, you think they'd be better off dead--that form of supremacy is such dangerous territory to dance into as a society, because it always goes in the same direction. It always heads into genocide. To get into [Mike's] head took a little more work, to properly imagine the extremity of his feelings."

Gow's new play, set to premiere in Canada at the end of October, deals with lighter fare... sort of. "I'm in rehearsals for that right now," Gow told EDGE. "I'm really pleased with how that piece is coming along." The new work is a musical that deals with the discovery of a mass grave.

"I have five performers and they all sing, and they harmonize beautifully," said Gow. "At the moment they are singing in the rehearsal hall a capella. If you just listen to the singing with those five voices, it'll stop you right in your tracks. It's a haunting piece, based on a true story about how the British Canadian government decided it needed to put a railway across the St. Lawrence river, a span of 3.2 miles, at that time the greatest span in the British Empire," Gow explains, "and this was [built] largely by Irish workers. As they were working, they ran into a mass grave of six thousand people mostly Irish. People knew where this grave was in general terms, and yet the British continued with their plan to have the railway train go right through there.

"It's a musical about the dead, and the characters are haunted by their dead, and they're held back, in a way, from establishing a new life in the new land [because] they haven't fully grieved and mourned the dead who have been buried [in the mass grave]; they haven't had wakes for these people because they died of fever, they died very suddenly. Or anyway, that's my imagination's take on it!" Gow says, with a chuckle. "They decide to have a wake, and they have a woodcarver awakes from a dream with the idea that he should carve a skeleton out of willow and walnut and oak; apple for the skull, and willow for the ribs for breathing, and walnut for the feet of spryness and oak for the pelvis, which the cradle of life.

"This is a half-sized skeleton-a marionette, in theatrical terms-and it's covered with six thousand red, glittering beads, representing the six thousand dead. At one point during this musical, that skeleton will be brought out and danced on a board, the way that you sometimes see in Appalachia--a puppet of a man or a bear that will appear to be dancing on a board. We'll have the skeleton built and glowing in time for the show, and we'll have about twelve 'trads'-traditional Irish musical pieces. It's written in a kind of imaginary 19th-century Irish dialect.

"I'm really chuffed to have a play opening in Boston and then on the 28th have another play opening up [in Canada]!" Gow enthused. "It's thrilling to see a new production, and it's thrilling to see new productions of an old work, too. Everybody does it differently, and they bring different strengths and points of view to it. I think New Rep's a great company to be working on the piece. It has a strong reputation. I'm really happy to be produced there, and I hope to see more work produced there in the future."

Cherry Docs continues through November 7 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.