“It is territory that has not been covered as far as I know in theater, and certainly not motion pictures or television,” said actor Ames Adamson. “It’s just too touchy.”
It’s also very timely. At a time when individual states are resurging as cultural and political battlegrounds over gay marriage and adoption, the time seems especially right for InterAct Theatre Company’s production of “Little Lamb.”
The new drama centers on Denny and José (played by Adamson and Frank X), a white/Latino mixed-race gay couple who decide to adopt an African-American baby girl and start a family. Complications arise when an unexpected visit from the birth mother challenges the validity of the adoption and threatens their newfound happiness.
Adamson said the couple’s struggles in the play are a reflection of issues and feelings many gays and lesbians have regarding the recent political victories and losses that have occurred around the country.
“Of course the subject never goes out of timeliness in the LGBT community and other people as well who are interested in that,” Adamson said. “One of the lines I say is, ‘I’m here doing a job nobody wants to do, adopting a child nobody wants. And I’ve fought hard to have the job that I want and have the community I want and I still can’t raise a family and marry the man that I love.’ That line means a little bit more to me as a gay person today. The fact is, we’re lucky in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and a few other places in the country, but there are plenty of states where the remote possibility of a gay couple adopting is out of the question and there’s only a handful of states where civil unions are recognized. Fewer still where marriage is considered legal or possible.”
Michael Whistler, the playwright behind “Little Lamb,” added that the changing political landscape for gays and lesbians affected elements of the play.
“In many states, gay couples cannot adopt as a couple,” he said. “They adopt as a single parent. In Pennsylvania, it has changed in the last two years. So that removed the city from the play that we were working on. So we don’t actually state a state. The laws that are in [the play] are existent in several states, but not in Pennsylvania.”
Whistler said that in his research for the play, he found the majority of gay adoptions usually don’t have the kinds of conflicts seen in “Little Lamb.”
“I interviewed a number of gay couples that had adopted about forming their families,” he said. “I also talked with straight couples that adopted. I’m very happy to say there are a lot of protections in place for gay couples. Ninety-nine percent of the couples that I talked to told me wonderful stories of creating a family. Of course, as a playwright, I was looking for the one story that wasn’t that. The facts of this play are based on two different disrupted adoptions that I was aware of. The birth mother returns and there’s a legal snafu that gives her a tie to actually make a claim on the baby. In the play, the birth mother comes into an adoption counseling session and basically waives her right to make a decision. She basically says, ‘You decide.’ There are a number of young mothers who do that: who simply don’t want to think about or make a decision. At that point, the adoption counselor makes the decision.”
The conflicts in “Little Lamb” draw not only from issues of sexual orientation, but also race and religion when the birth mother voices her newly found opinions about the adoption.
“In the earlier scenes of the play, when she speaks to the counselor and they talk about Denny and José, she goes with that decision,” Whistler said. “She has a change of heart later on in the play. She has a conversion and she comes back to confront the couple and the adoption social worker aided by a member of her church.”
Caught between the birth mother and gay couple is Cathy (played by Kaci M. Fannin), the adoption agent who placed the baby with the couple and is forced to choose between her progressive values, her heritage and her beliefs.
“Cathy is trying to make it all work,” Whistler said. “I wanted to take a look at a progressive Christian, someone who is trying to straddle the fence of finding a way to live in a world where they have progressive values in the face of a changing Christian church. She’s a pragmatist. She’s trying to make the adoption work and put everything together. It doesn’t always fit.”
Whistler said that he did a lot of work balancing out the sexual orientation and racial issues in “Little Lamb.”
“It’s a trans-racial adoption and it’s a shared family that is being created,” he said. “I did a lot of work talking to trans-racial families. That’s the first act. The issues of race definitely come back and bite the characters in the butt in the second act. I wanted to look at that as evenly and as passionately as I look at the issues of the gay couple and sexuality.”
Whistler added that even though the characters are at odds with each other, it doesn’t necessarily make one side more of the “bad guy” than the other.
“I would consider all the characters sympathetic characters,” he said. “That is important to me. One of the things that I really want to look at in this play is the role of faith in our society today. I can’t do that without having people of faith on stage and whose voices I support. So everyone in this play is trying to do good in this world.”
Whistler also said it was important for him to capture an authentic relationship between Denny and José.
“As a playwright, that’s very much my mission statement,” he said. “I want to be able to write the stories of gay men with honor, dignity, humor and humanity. One of the things that I don’t see as a gay man and as a playwright on stage is a mature relationship between two men. One of the things that I really wanted to create in this was that: two men that have a life together, who know how to deal with each other and are not perfect, but have a relationship that can weather some phenomenal storms. Ames and Frank are just beautiful. They have such warmth for each other and sensitivity, which is what makes a true relationship on stage.”
Adamson said that Denny and José definitely live up to Whistler’s vision for realistic gay characters.
“With any relationship, there’s not going to be a united front all the time,” he said of Denny and José’s relationship. “We come together, we separate and we have our doubts. There is conflict and that’s a really good thing. It shows a gay couple in a wonderful real light. It’s not all peaches and roses and fabulousity [sic]. There are warts and bumps and problems. We’re not always in synch. Part of Denny’s problem is that he’s a little overconfident. On one hand, that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, he just says, ‘If I set my mind to it, I can have it. I can do it. It will be.’ That could be a character flaw but, on the other hand, it could be a positive thing to have that kind of attitude.”
Adamson added he hopes viewers, no matter what side of the issue they fall on, will be able to see them in a positive light.
“They’re just a couple of guys who love each other who are being battered down by a system and by ingrained prejudice against the idea of an interracial and gay couple adopting a black child,” Adamson said. “If they shed a tear for Denny and for José, then that’s a good thing. I don’t know if I’ve done my job but it makes me feel good. It’s up to each audience member to determine what the play is about and take away what they want from it.”
One effect “Little Lamb” already has had: Some of the performers are thinking about how gay adoption might factor into their own lives.
“I’ve thought about it,” Adamson responded when asked if he’d ever consider adopting. “There were a lot of wild similarities between [me and] the character I portray and his partner. I am originally from St. Louis and this character is from Atlanta. So they’re both sort of Southern. The character’s lover is named José and so is mine. It’s kind of freaky, funny and exciting all at once. The problem is that I’m an actor and my income is never steady. I travel a lot, so it makes it really hard to consider that. My partner and I have talked about it. My partner happens to have been adopted. He’s Puerto Rican and he was adopted by a Caucasian upper-crusty New Jersey family. He’s always had the sense of wanting to give that back in some way. But right now, with the state of my career, it would be unfair — not to me so much, but to a child.”
Whistler wouldn’t say whether he would want to adopt — and had a good reason.
“I have a wonderful partner of 20 years and I am not about to answer that and have him read my answer in the paper,” he said. “But I will say that the play has changed my views on it. I know that a lot of doors are open to me and a lot of protections are in place for me that I didn’t know about. I’ve also met a number of wonderful families through this, and that has really changed my view on it.”
InterAct Theatre Company presents “Little Lamb” through June 28 at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. InterAct also hosts several post-performance discussions on Sundays featuring invited scholars, community leaders and artists to encourage further discussion. The June 7 performance will feature a post-show discussion featuring Mark Isaksen and Daniel Walth, a couple whose adoption process closely mirrored that of Denny and José. The June 14 performance features Dr. Salman Akhtar, psychiatry professor at Jefferson University. The June 21 performance features Abby Ruder, a marriage and family therapist specializing in adoption information and support services, who advised the playwright during the script development.
For more information, visit www.InterActTheatre.org or call (215) 568-8079.