GEORGE BIRIMISA an American playwright, actor and director who contributed to the explosion of Gay theater in the mid-1960s during the early years of Off-Off-Broadway died on this date (b:1924);
Birimisa’s works feature sexually explicit, emotionally charged depictions of working class Gay men, often closeted, in the years before the Stonewall uprising (1969) triggered a national and international gay rights movement.
Contemporary Authors said that “Birmisa’s plays feature themes of human isolation, frustrated idealism, and rage against needless suffering, usually centered around homosexual characters. According to critic and playwright Michael Smith, Birimisa’s writing “links the pain of human isolation to economic and social roots.”
Birimisa’s first produced play, Degrees (February 1966), a portrait of a Gay relationship, premiered at Theater Genesis in the East Village, Manhattan. At the time, Gay plays usually received no serious artistic or critical attention. “For years,” the playwright recalls, “even Gay people would ask me, ‘When are you going to write your first real play?’ Degrees included autobiographical elements, which became stronger and more explicit in Birimisa’s later works. Above all, he writes out of a need to tell the truth about his own life. “I don’t agree that there are ‘shades of truth,’” he says. “We all know the truth, deep inside ourselves. As artists, we have a responsibility to reveal who we truly are, not to work in shades of gray. This truth includes our sexual beings.”
Birimisa directed and acted in his best-known Off-Off-Broadway play, Daddy Violet (1967), a semi-improvised indictment of the Vietnam War. Daddy Violet opened at the Troupe Theatre Club, premièred in June 1967 at the Caffe Cino, Joe Cino’s’s famous coffeehouse in Greenwich Village that is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway. The play subsequently toured colleges in the United States and Canada and appeared at the 1968 International Theater Festival in Vancouver. Birimisa acknowledged that he wrote Daddy Violet as a parody of the abstract, improvisational theater then in vogue Off-Off-Broadway, an attempt to “out avant-garde everyone else.” For a revival at the Boston Conservatory in 2006, Birimisa revised the script to refer to the war in Iraq.
In 1969, George became the first out Gay playwright to receive a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. This enabled him to attend rehearsals for the London production of his first two-act play, Mr. Jello (April 1968), an arrangement of realistic vignettes that intersect to form a surrealistic social statement, with characters that include a female impersonator, a Gay married man, and a hustler.
In 1976, Birimisa moved to Los Angeles, California. He dismisses the three plays he wrote there, A Dress Made of Diamonds (1976), Pogey Bait (1976), and A Rainbow in the Night (1978) as inferior to his earlier works. However, A Rainbow in the Night, an autobiographical portrait of two Gay men living in New York City’s Bowery in 1953, won a 1978 Drama-Logue Award, and Pogey Bait, a comedy based on Birimisa’s wartime experiences as a Gay apprentice seaman, received subsequent productions in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles.
Birimisa moved to San Francisco in 1980 and did not write another play for almost 10 years. Then he began a revised version of A Rainbow in the Night titled The Man With Straight Hair (1994), which premiered at the Studio at Theater Rhinocerous.
A one-man play, Looking for Mr. America (1995), debuted at Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint and subsequently played in New York at the La Mama Experimental Theater Club. Birimisa himself performed the show at age 71, in the role of a man recounting his lifelong sexual addiction. Dean Goodman’s review noted that the play offers “an eloquent and touching portrait of a particular Gay man’s journey through the last half of the 20th century.”
Viagra Falls (2005) received a concert performance at La MaMa E.T.C. on September 17, 2007, under the direction of Daniel Haben Clark. The play chronicles a young Gay man’s long-term sado-masochistic relationship with a closeted opthamologist.
With Steve Susoyev, Birimisa edited Return to Caffe Cino (2007), an anthology of essays and plays by writers associated with the Cino. The book won a 2007 Lambda Literary Award for Theater and Drama.
Birimisa: Portraits, Plays, Perversions (2009), an anthology of collected works and essays about Birimisa’s personal life and career, includes an unproduced screenplay, The Kewpie–Doll Kiss, which chronicles Birimisa’s childhood loss of his father, abandonment by his mother, and discovery of his sexuality, subjects explored earlier onstage in A Dress Made of Diamonds.
George Birmisa taught Creative Writing since 1983, sponsored by New Leaf Services. He received the 2004 Harry Hay Award in recognition of his writing and community service. At the time of his death, he was writing an autobiography titled Wildflowers. His unpublished manuscripts are in the Joe Cino Memorial Library at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York.