By Moira McMahon Leeper
Hunter Lee Hughes is a big name for a blonde wisp of a boy growing up in Texas and Michigan, alternatively being passed from parent to parent via silver 747s traversing the great American sky.
Those hours of travel afforded a lot of time to dream. And so, dream he did.
I met my friend Hunter in San Antonio, Texas, while attending a small, specific kind of liberal arts school where we were both getting a specific kind of education. Our campus was overrun with tangled oaks that grew over our heads, forming a canopy that turned the hard Texas sun into sweet green gumdrops, our childhoods simultaneously vanishing and being extended in long afternoon naps and late night cheeseburgers. Hunter was political, committed, sincere. I was whimsical, unreliable, eager. Hunter was one of the first people to believe in my talent as a writer. I didn’t know that Hunter was a writer at the time but I should have. He was very, very smart and saw the world with a tender, careful eye. He would speak in long sentences, his words specific and exact. Then we both graduated and lost touch.
We found each other again in the dreamiest place in all the world, Hollywood.
In Hunter’s play, The Sermons of John Bradley, we watch the son of a disgraced preacher come to terms with what love is. At first, love is ownership of another, that of course, cannot withstand the temptation of the world. Then, it’s a letting go of singular love to try to heal others of their disappointment of love. And next, it’s forgiving the one that broke your heart, even if you are not ready, even if you are still stinging from the fall. Finally, this leads to forgiveness of the family, and most importantly, of the father, faults and all. The last section of this play is entitled, The Death of the Body, a theme also explored in Fate of the Monarchs. In this multi-media play, a young man travels from his hometown, where he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world, to grapple with his desires to love another man. His journey is rocky and confusing, and leads to an underground preacher who wants to heal the gay men of West Hollywood by turning them away from the body’s desires and toward the healing power of love. This preacher wants these men to forgo the urges of the flesh in the hopes of being qualified for a heavenly kingdom, “Cause up there, up there, up there, love doesn’t have a body.” This is a theme throughout Hughes’ work. The body as a place of pleasure, then pain; a pain so intense, that only escape is acceptable.
Hunter’s sensitivity to the dichotomy of the body, at once a place to experience the titillation and joy of life and simultaneously a place of isolation and disappointment is profound. Again and again in his work, the desires of the flesh come up against the steel walls of society’s expectations that add up to the cost it is to live in this world. A world that does not honor love above the body. A world that is full of sinners and lovers and many who have to run away from home in order to find their own path to adulthood – and specifically a gay male adulthood. This journey is so painful to be in moment to moment, that fantasy acts as a salve to keep the open wound of growing up manageable.
The role of fantasy is the river that runs through all of Hughes’ work. The full execution of the fantasy paints a picture of the psyche of the protagonist, be it a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis in Fate of the Monarchs, or a spider approaching prey in WINNER TAKES ALL, or men in rooms reciting poetry in GUYS READING POEMS. In each work, there is a place in reality too painful to stay, and so the fantasy takes its hold and cradles the protagonist from one side of the painful event to the other. Just like that plane, flying over the earth, to deliver that pale-eyed boy to the court-determined parent.
Usually, this works. But in one especially revealing poem entitled, “The Plane Ride,” fantasy doesn’t arrive when the protagonist needs it:
But now the desire for sorrow,
Is so insistent that writing words
Does nothing to relieve it.
This is what I learned on the plane ride.
It’s a rare moment in which there is no escape, in that bullet in the sky, the dreams did not arrive. Sometimes, you are just alone, though surrounded by people, flying across the sky. It is, perhaps, the exception that makes the rule.
And the rule is: fantasy is preferable to pain. It is a necessary navigational tool through the journey of family, love, hatred, competition, and even inhabiting the body itself, as this is the ultimate confinement of the soul.
Fantasy is so effective in Hughes’ work; it is presented as the only rational reaction to a chaotic world. Perhaps, it is even a gift from God to get us through our time scratching this planet. But, it is never the final destination. In each story, reality must be returned to. For it is back in reality that the protagonist must confront the very pain he was running from. In The Sermons of John Bradley, John must lay his dead father to rest and find a way to take the best of his father with him. In Fate of the Monarchs, the protagonist must travel home, to the very place he ran from to know his son from that abandoned marriage. Though Hughes may allow his heroes escape from reality, they are always tethered to the very thing they are running from. That rope always brings you back.
And so it is with GUYS READING POEMS. We may disappear for a time within the fantasy world, but one day, one day when you think you will never return, light floods your darkest places.
The plane lands, and a little boy, full of life and wonder, emerges.
Moira McMahon Leeper is the screenwriter of the award-winning feature film A LIGHT BENEATH THEIR FEET and has written for PRIVATE PRACTICE and TEEN WOLF as well as developed pilots for network and cable television.