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Theatre Alumnus Oliver Mayer's Plays Explore Themes of Ethnic Influences

By Kristin Sterling

Oliver Mayer and director L. Kenneth Richardson
Photo by Anne Fishbein

With the plays "Blade to Heat" and "Joe Louis Blues" to his credit, playwright Oliver Mayer's (MFA 1989) "Young Valiant" has hit the stage in New York.

Described by Mayer as a "loving, feeling play," "Young Valiant" explores the sexual awakening in a young, bicultural boy. When he acts upon his feelings, he throws his family into a bold, confusing, scary world which calls into question love's boundaries.

"It is a story of a boy who feels he is a man, but is only 10-years old," says Mayer. "He is in a very strong place as he begins his life feeling anything is possible, including being in love with his mother."

"Young Valiant," is being performed at the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center in New York (508 W. 53rd Street) through June 28, as part of the repertory entitled "Ties that Bind."

The three plays that comprise "Ties that Bind" show how some young writers are trying to free us of stereotypes and expand our vision of what a young person of color can be, says Mayer.

The idea for "Young Valiant" stemmed from a valentine Mayer was creating for his mother while he was a student in the School of the Arts. Encouraged by his mentor, theatre arts professor Howard Stein, Mayer continued to write, expanding his work into a play. During the process he also found the reaction of his fellow students motivating. Mayer is impressed that even after a decade this network of faculty and alumni remains strong, with Columbians attending performances and offering opportunities for collaboration.

Although he was eager to get his play produced after graduation, Mayer was astute enough to realize that he had to "hold tight and wait to find the right person" to direct the play. Last year, when Michael Garces approached him about doing "Young Valiant," he knew the time was ripe.

"I am fortunate to be working with a director like Michael," says Mayer. "He is very talented and does very strong work. I feel good about the show and recommend it to people."

This confidence in the director and actors has freed Mayer to work on his next endeavor, the world premiere of "Ragged Time," slated to open in September/October in Los Angeles. A sharp departure from "Young Valiant," this play is set in a fictionalized Southern city in 1898 and wrestles with the issue of slavery.

"Ragged Time" centers around a young Mexican boy who is "sold to a black, blind street singer to be a sort-of seeing-eye dog," says Mayer. "The boy navigates, survives and judges his potential enslavement. It is a microcosm for how we all have to get through our lives. There are many kinds of slavery that still exist in this world -- economical, sexual, the way we use people." He points to the "slavery of rent" as an example.

Slavery, history and racial issues are topics that run throughout most of Mayer's works. "Joe Louis Blues," produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta, is based on events from the life of 1940s African-American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. It focuses on the moment in Louis' career when he was invincible until the IRS prosecuted him for back taxes, keeping him in debt for most of the remainder of his life.

Mayer's most well-known play, "Blade to Heat," is based on events from the boxing world when a young boxer was accused of being gay. The play explores Latin men and how they identify themselves, explains Mayer. "Blade to Heat" was originally produced at the Public Theater in New York, and subsequently was performed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Mexico City.

Mayer is currently working to have "Blade to Heat" made into a movie. Madonna had bought and held the movie rights for "Blade to Heat" for six years during the 1990s, during her "Evita" period, but she did not move forward with the project.

Mayer's film "The Way She Moves" was shown on VH-1 last year. In addition to his working on his plays and now movies, Mayer also teaches at the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, Cal.

"Young Valiant" will be performed at INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center, 508 W. 53rd Street in New York, through Friday, June 28. For tickets, call 212-279-4200.

Published: Jun 20, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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