It’s a scene barely imaginable to 2017’s denizens of Durham’s downtown: empty buildings; empty sidewalks; sparse traffic. No baby strollers, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no sidewalk tables, no hotels or nationally-praised restaurants. Not one coffee shop. The banks were still here, and a few low-cost niche shops and storefront churches, and plenty of attorneys–and the oddballs: an artist or two; working folks who appreciated tall Budweisers with their greasy eggs at the Plaza, and others, more leisured, who preferred their Wild Irish Rose in the alleys and doorways; sweet, haunted Mr. Oscar Matthews, the shell-shocked Korean vet who made the rounds of downtown daily; and that nutty couple making an apartment over a boarded-up storefront. But there was the Bagel Dog (one of two local sources for the Sunday New York Times) and Amos and Andy’s venerable hot dog joint–and in the fall of 1987, another dog showed up, friendly and wanting to play: Manbites Dog Theater.
How did that happen?
Manbites Dog co-founder Jeff Storer had come to Durham to teach at Duke Drama, as Duke Theatre Studies was then called, but there had been a rift in their working relationship, so Storer and his partner, Ed Hunt, were looking for places and ways to make theatre outside the university. “Ed brought me out in 1984,” Storer says, “and we were defining our relationship.” Hunt says that a crucial moment in the defining period was when the pair saw a preview of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart in the spring of 1985.
“The Normal Heart,” says Hunt, “is a milestone play calling out institutions and society for not addressing what needed to be addressed.” He and Storer were hit with the realization that “theatre could be a major active voice in addressing the slow motion disaster of the AIDS epidemic.” They immediately determined to produce The Normal Heart in Durham.
To this end, they decided to create a theater and make a season and make some news.
It would be Seventy Scenes of Halloween, which Hunt calls “a really interesting playing with form,” by Jeffrey M. Jones, and a two-person character exploration, The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone, “bringing a new playwright” to the area, and The Normal Heart. Although they did not know at the time whether this new theater would continue beyond one season, they established from the first the kind of theatrical mix that would define Manbites for the years to come: experimental form, new writers, and passionate political activism.
“Those were the plays–then we had to find a place to do them,” says Hunt. Through a connection with the downtown artist Tim O. Walker, Hunt and Storer met developer Brian South, who owned some downtown properties, was trying to generate interest in downtown and was happy to let artists do some of that work. He let them have a former shoe store at 343 West Main for a modest rent, and the 1987-88 Manbites Dog Theater season took place there, opening with Seventy Scenes. “An odd strange play in an odd strange place,” laughs Hunt, 30 years later.
“The first season made enough of a splash that we wanted to keep going,” Hunt says. “We did our market research by doing a season–and found an ecosystem waiting to be born.”
So they planned a second season, and were ready to open its first show in space in the old D.C. May building further west on Main Street–but got an unexpected crash course in complying with City code. On what was to have been opening night, Hunt and Storer instead stood on the sidewalk to tell people they couldn’t enter. Suddenly Manbites Dog was an itinerant theater, schlepping all the gear from spot to spot, performing in the Ark at Duke, the Durham Arts Council, and other places around town, and in their third season, in a space in Brightleaf Square visually interrupted by support columns.
Around this time, Hunt and Storer found themselves both reading Larry Kramer’s 1989 Reports from the Holocaust, regarding the AIDS crisis. They began to wonder if they could just use his essay and not wait for him to write a play from it. Kramer was amenable. It would be short, a monologue delivered by actor David Ring, and they would need a “curtain-raiser.” Since this was during the 1990 Senate race during which Jesse Helms was saying terrible things about AIDS and art on a daily basis, they decided to devise a piece entirely from Helms quotes, and have them spoken by a woman, actress Patricia Esperon. The two pieces together, along with photography by Alan Dehmer and choreography by Barbara Dickinson, became Indecent Materials, and had a two-week run.
Larry Kramer himself came to see it. “He was very complimentary,” says Hunt, adding that during Kramer’s visit, actress Esperon told Kramer, out of the blue: “you should bring it to the Public Theater.” Kramer then called the legendary Joseph Papp, the activist producer at New York’s Public Theater; Papp sent someone down for a look at the show. Hunt and Storer got home one night soon after to a message from Papp on the answering machine.
“Jeff was like a deer in the headlights,” Hunt recalls. He returned the call, and when Papp’s wife answered, Storer gave his name and said he was returning Joseph Papp’s call. Ms. Papp said “who?” and Storer was so flustered he started explaining who Joseph Papp was. “No! Who are you?” Storer crows with laughter, remembering. Once Papp got on the phone, he invited Manbites to bring Indecent Materials to the Public, slotting the show in at the beginning of his season. “I’d worshipped Papp my whole life,” says Storer. “To get a call from him was incredible.”
“The year we went to the Public,” he continues, ” was when we found out about my brother [his HIV/AIDS diagnosis]. It reinforced the idea that theater had to reflect the community. If we wanted to do something, theater was the way we could do it. It unfolded out of the necessity to define ourselves as artists and deal with what was in front of us.”
“We hadn’t met the mark to get any local or state funding, but what we did have was this letter from Joe Papp that he put in every program about this courageous North Carolina company.
“At the moment when we could have given up, that miraculous thing happened.
“Going forward was the only option.”
To be continued.