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FREE TO BE HOW A SMALL-TOWN BOY FOUND SALVATION-AND LIBERATION-IN THE THEATER

NEW YORK — New York -- David Drake doesn't know when he first realized he was gay, but he remembers being aware that he was different by the time he was 6 or 7.

"I was a sissy. I liked to play with dolls. I liked to dress up. There was something very different from what the other little boys were," the boyish blond-haired actor/playwright recalled on a recent warm day in the Greenwich Village apartment where he lives with two cats.

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A fourth-floor walk-up above an Italian restaurant, Drake's tiny, cluttered apartment doesn't look like the home of a star. There are cracks in the plaster, dishes in the sink, and the furniture is decidedly more thrift shop than antique. Nor does Drake dress like a star: He is wearing jeans and a flannel shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulder.

But in the past few months, the Maryland-bred performer has been emitting enough heat and light to pass for a small galaxy. His poster is plastered all over the Village and there's a billboard around the corner from the Perry Street Theatre, where he appears six nights a week in "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," an off-Broadway hit since its June opening.

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The one-man show could be described as a semi-autobiographical portrait of the gay artist as a young man. Drake's major on-stage epiphany comes on his 16th birthday, when he attends a touring production of "A Chorus Line" at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre and suddenly hears, "my story/Out of the mouth of that Puerto Rican, dancer-boy Paul/telling the story/of a boy who loves boys."

The title, "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me," refers to the author of "The Normal Heart," a groundbreaking, call-to-arms AIDS drama. The kiss is both metaphorical and literal. Metaphorically, it describes the effect Kramer's 1985 play had on Drake, shocking him out of denial and into awareness about the AIDS epidemic. The literal kiss came five years later when Drake found himself manning a booth with Kramer on Gay Pride Day; Kramer gave him a kiss of solidarity after learning that Drake's birthday is Sept. 27, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a Greenwich Village uprising that has become a landmark in the gay rights movement.

But the show, which consists of seven poetic vignettes, is about more than coming of age politically. It is also about coming of age as a gay man in America, and since Drake, 29, grew up in Harford County, it is specifically about growing up gay in small-town Maryland. In a larger sense, Drake has written a tribute to some of the most highly valued American qualities -- individuality and the courage to be true to yourself.

"The fact that he personalizes everything he does to such a degree is what makes it universal," says his friend Jose %o Villarrubia, a Baltimore photographer, painter and lecturer at Towson State University, who arranged for Drake to try out portions of his show at local venues including Towson State, Maryland Art Place and the BAUhouse before its New York premiere.

When the play opened off-Broadway, the Associated Press called it "fast, furious and fascinating." Rex Reed wrote in the New York Observer: "It's rare to discover a talent this vast, diversified and appealing. . . . David Drake is a major new voice with a soul big enough to touch us all." And Jan Stuart of New York Newsday said, "It wouldn't surprise me if 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me' became to Gay and Lesbian Pride Day what 'Miracle on 34th Street' is to Christmas."

Encouraged by an audience turnout that has held steady at 90 percent capacity -- even in the normally slow months of July and August -- Drake's producers recently extended their lease at the Perry Street Theatre beyond September, to the end of the year.

A NUMBER OF DETOURS

David Drake's off-stage persona is considerably more G-rated than his mature-audiences-only performance, but he is every bit as forthcoming. His all-American boy appearance is mirrored by the sheer likableness of his manner. In the theater, this quality carries over the footlights; in the comfort of his living room, it's reflected in the guilelessness with which he presents the details of a life that has taken a number of detours from the path of the typical all-American boy.

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In his show's opening vignette, Drake discovers that kindred spirit on stage in "A Chorus Line" on the same night that his parents discover his homosexuality. His date, Tim, gives him a good night kiss in front of his Edgewood, Md., house, and the porch light suddenly floods on, followed by, as the script puts it, "Living room light explosions, eruptions, discussions" and a heated exchange in which his parents insist, "You can't be gay" and "It's a phase."

Drake acknowledges that he altered some circumstances, names and dates for theatrical effect, but he says this is a fairly accurate reflection of his parents' initial reaction. This is confirmed by his father, Dave Drakula (pronounced Drah-COO-la), a free-lance journalist in Emporium, Pa., who writes about hunting and other outdoor sports, and who is described by his son as "a straight gay activist."

Drakula recalls his first response as "somewhat anger and disappointment." But at the same time, he says, "I had suspected this before. It just confirmed my suspicions."

In fact, he had suspicions before Drake did. When his son was only 4 years old, Drakula says, he noticed "actions, playing with dolls, [high] heels, almost an effeminate nature . . . I kind of prepared myself because I knew it was something that he could not help. I don't mean that in a derogatory way. You are who you are, and the important thing for parents at that point is to be supportive."

But what does a child do when the bullies at school are calling him "fairy" and "sissy" and "boy-girl"? Because, as Drake points out, "little kids sense when other little kids sexually are different. . . . It starts so young."

A coal miner's grandson who was an infant when his family moved to Maryland from his birthplace in the Allegheny Mountain town of Waynesburg, Pa., Drake insists he found no role models in Harford County -- "none; there was nobody gay." Granted, there was his Great-Uncle Paul in Virginia, a painter of pet portraits who has been in the same monogamous homosexual relationship "forever." But Drake, who is an only child, rarely saw him.

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"The choices for survival are you become funny and make people laugh, or you isolate. Otherwise you are literally in physical danger," says Drake, who was a victim of gay-bashing on his New York street just a few years ago. Early on, however, Drake found an additional survival tool. "I got in show business at 10 years old, and I was on stage, so I was able to have something."

His introduction to show business came in a production of "The Most Happy Fella" at Morgan State University, which his mother was attending on a minority scholarship. His parents had divorced a few years earlier and, Drake says, "It was cheaper for her to take me to class with her than to hire a baby sitter." So, mother and son appeared together in the chorus -- the only white performers in the show.

But far from feeling out of place, Drake felt he had come home. Although his mother never acted again, concentrating instead on her career as a music teacher, her son was hooked. Audrey Herman, president and artistic director of the Spotlighters Theatre, remembers getting a letter from him, written in pencil, -- when he was only 11.

"He said that he loved theater and he always wanted to be in the theater and he hoped that someday he would be able to be on our stage," Herman recalls. (Drake's continuing affection for the little St. Paul Street playhouse is reflected by the fact that the sole theatrical poster on display in his apartment is from the Spotlighters' 1982 production of "George M!", in which he played George M. Cohan.)

Eager to begin his professional career, Drake graduated a year early from Edgewood Senior High School and moved to New York with a lover -- and the approval of his mother. For a couple of months, he took acting classes, appeared as an extra on soap operas and supported himself working on public opinion polls for the New York Times. Then his mother died suddenly in a car accident. He was 17.

Drake moved back to his mother's house and enrolled at Essex Community College. F. Scott Black, director of the college's theater program, recalls that Drake possessed that "thing you can't teach; I guess it's the charisma, that spark in the eyes . . . It draws you right to him, makes you look at him regardless of whether he's in the chorus or has the lead."

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Soon Drake was starring in musicals at the Spotlighters, Cockpit Court, and TowsonTowne and Limestone dinner theaters.

"He really was the one who kicked the highest and sang the loudest and turned the fastest," says Todd Pearthree, who directed and/or choreographed him in more shows than anyone else locally.

But Drake was also drinking -- heavily.

"After my mother died I started drinking. It wasn't anything conscious like, oh, now I'm going to drink, so much as it was, I was enabled to drink. I had an excuse. I was all by myself now. I had a house. I was a grown-up. I was going to college, and I was back involved with theater, and it was like people could understand if you got drunk."

Although Drake insists he never appeared on stage drunk, one area producer felt it necessary to issue him a warning.

"I was David Drake and in some circles I was also David Drunk, and that wasn't very pretty," the actor says. By the end of 1983, he had accumulated two years of college credits, a slew of local leading roles and a reputation for alcohol abuse -- and the latter was one reason he left Baltimore.

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But his drinking didn't stop when he returned to New York. The impetus to quit came a few years later.

"The jig was sort of up," he says. "It was getting out of control at the apartment. It was a little dangerous, little things, but enough -- leaving the stove on all night, leaving the door unlocked." When he finally admitted he had a problem, his roommate -- a recovering alcoholic -- helped him get sober, and he says, "I've been sober ever since."

Drake, who now has been a recovering alcoholic for 6 1/2 years, recognizes how fortunate he was that alcohol didn't sideline his New York career. In fact, he landed his first stage job, in a short-lived off-Broadway play called "Street Theater," after he had been in town only four days. Appropriately enough, he was cast as a gay newcomer to Greenwich Village.

A considerable change from the traditional musical comedy leads he had played in Baltimore, the role set the tone for his subsequent career, in which theater has provided the forum for his identification as an openly gay artist.

"All of the sudden I was allowed to be all these things that were secretly inside, but not explored on the stage, and the audiences and the critics went for it," he recalls. "I became like a gay starlet because you are what your first job is really. So I've stayed in the context of the gay sensibility in professional theater in New York ever since."

His rare, but highly visible, screen appearances have also been in this context, including a bit part in the feature film "Longtime Companion" and a guest appearance on NBC's "Law & Order."

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THE DRAG THING

The character Drake played on "Law & Order" -- a female impersonator -- typifies something that threatened to interfere with his career even after he overcame his problem with alcohol. He was developing a reputation as a drag artist. His introduction to drag came in 1987, when he was hired to replace Charles Busch, star and author of the long-running comedy "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom."

He confesses, "I had a low opinion of it at first -- that it was sort of a gay-bar thing. . . . There was a misogynistic tone to drag in some of the places." But he accepted the "Vampire" role because Busch's approach was different. "When he writes female characters, he writes them as heroines," Drake says.

He spent more than two years portraying a vampire lesbian, and since it was his first big break, audiences and critics -- not to mention theatrical agents, producers and directors -- were introduced to Drake as an actor in a dress. When his stint in "Vampires" ended, he had trouble getting hired to do anything else.

"I've had casting directors call my house and say, 'Bring a mini-skirt,' " he explains. "I say, 'I don't own one.' They don't understand. They think I'm this professional drag queen."

Instead, as Drake wrote in an article for Theater Week magazine in June, when he plays a woman on stage, he does so as an actor portraying a character, not as a man living out his lifestyle.

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Concern about type-casting almost led him to pass up another role for which he became well-known, that of Miss Deep South, a beauty contestant in the audience-participation show "Pageant."

The actor had similar misgivings when he was asked to play a transsexual hooker in a workshop production of a new Cy Coleman musical called "The Life." But he couldn't resist the temptation to work with Coleman, whose credits include "Sweet Charity" and "The Will Rogers Follies."

Although Drake says he didn't write "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" merely to get "pants roles," there's no mistaking the fact that the word "drag" is never mentioned in the script.

He claims the real inspiration for the show came from his father, who recalls, "He called me one day and said, 'I just can't find the kind of show I want to do, and I said, 'Why don't you write your own?' . . . I'm a big fan of [short story writer] Raymond Carver, and I think his favorite phrase is 'bearing witness,' and that's what I tell David. I say you have to truthfully bear witness to your life and do it well and that's really what counts."

Though Drake had never written for the theater, he had written short pieces, including a couple of articles for the Mountain Journal, a quarterly magazine edited and published by his father.

However, he quickly became immersed in "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me." In it, his approach to truth-telling is at times not only frank, but raw. In one scene, Drake plays a sweet-tempered little boy; in another, he's a kinky pickup artist; and in a third, a cold-hearted bodybuilder, pumping himself up mentally and physically to counter the blows of violent homophobes.

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As the work progressed, Drake says his father not only helped him edit, but "told me to turn down certain jobs so I could continue getting this show up, and that's unheard of, particularly considering the material. A lot of parents would back off and say, 'This is career suicide.' "

About half of the show was written or inspired in Baltimore, which Drake says, "really has a sense of creative home for me." The idea for one vignette, "12-Inch Single," about the gay-bar scene, occurred to him when he wandered by a Mount Vernon Place shop that specialized in 12-inch dance records. Later that day, in another Charles Street record store, he was inspired to write "Owed to the Village People," about one of the only pop groups available as a gay role model when he was growing up. And the show's affirmative, futuristic epilogue, " . . . and The Way We Were" -- in which the cure for AIDS has been found and the Smithsonian is building a "queer cultures wing" -- was written on a train ride to Baltimore.

Drake is already hard at work on the script for his second solo show, "A Fairy's Tale," which he expects to be even more autobiographical, and to include a scene about his great-uncle.

Meanwhile, plans are under way for him to take "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" on tour as early as this spring. The West Coast will probably be the first stop, but he's gotten calls from as far away as Finland and Australia.

He especially would like to bring the show to Baltimore. "David is very concerned about the outreach to small towns all over the United States," says his friend Jose Villarrubia. "I think there's a lot of the small-town boy in him."

Ideally, David Drake would like to create theater that touches the same chord in others that "A Chorus Line" and "The Normal Heart" did in him.

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"I want to be that person out there who the 12-year-old out in Harford County, Md. -- that little sissy boy -- can look at and say, 'It's OK. There's hope out there and survival and dignity. I am not alone.' "


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