Thanks in large part to the hyper-mediated and celebrity-driven character of the contemporary LGBT movement, the issue of queer youth suicide has rightly found its way into the public spotlight. Stories of young queers taking their own lives as an escape from bullying have become tragically commonplace in recent years.
This newfound attention, necessary as it is, however, comes with a certain danger that isn’t often addressed. When a young queer commits suicide, a deluge of stories, news reports, memorial pages, scholarship funds, and images now steps in to fill the absence they leave behind. In what sometimes feels like an almost desperate refusal to admit the traumatic loss of a queer body, we tend to insist that the memory and presence of the victim will be carried on, that their spirit lives in us all.
Again, crucial as such acts of remembrance are, they raise for me an important question: if mourning must always be a kind of filling-in of the absence left by suicide, what space can there really be to meditate on the absolute trauma of death, to reckon with a loss in which we are all implicated? By never allowing absence to register as absence, do we deny and shirk responsibility for the actual gone-ness of the body?
This charged relation between presence and absence, which unfolds so commonly in the wake of suicide, courses through Rob Salerno’s (Ten Foot Pole Theatre) Vancouver Fringe Festival production of his one-man show, First Day Back. Wheeling through a daunting cast of eight characters, Salerno explores the eerie feelings of loss, guilt, and disavowal rehearsed by students and staff at an Oshawa, Ontario high school on the first day back to classes following the suicide of gay classmate Ollie.
First Day opens with Salerno employing a modest ensemble of costume and set pieces to transform the bare, black box stage at Granville Island’s Studio 1398 into a classroom. Salerno, in his first of several turns as the school’s Fine Art teacher, presides over an imagined group of students, assembled to share their memories of Ollie and their thoughts on his suicide.
In guises that range from an up-and-coming basketball star to Ollie’s former lab partner, Salerno trots out the kind of tired justifications so commonly deployed by straight society following the death of a queer youth. Bullying is just a part of growing up, some claim. Others charge that, since the world is tough on everyone, the onus is on the individual to buck up and get through it as best they can.
In a more “sympathetic” turn that channels the humanitarian rhetoric of so many anti- bullying initiatives, Salerno’s accolade-grubbing Student Council President sanctimoniously offers to make a speech on the morning announcements about the importance of tolerance and equality.
Shrewdly, Salerno elects to play these figures as clowns. More caricature than character, they lampoon the politically inert and often apologist attitude taken toward anti-gay bullying in schools. The effect is amplified by the students’ all-too-frequent qualification, “I didn’t know Ollie very well, but…”
Here Salerno points toward the danger outlined above. These figures, cartoonishly representative of their own heteronormativity and largely ignorant of Ollie as a specifically human and queer life, are nonetheless invited to fill in his absence. His character is cemented in advance by the platitudes of the very cultural systems that drove him to take his own life. He becomes, in this sense, a spectral echo of the classroom itself: a big, empty space which, rather than being witnessed as traumatically empty, is filled up with the narratives of the individuals complicit in his death; individuals, significantly, who are bound by the rules of the “Safe Space” classroom to speak only in “I” statements.
Even the more complex moments of reflection — the jockish football player’s own feelings of inadequacy, the sympathetic recollections of Ollie’s eccentric best friend Layla, one student’s frantic attacks on privilege and power — serve to suppress Ollie himself. Where he remains a largely unknown trace or shadow, his straight counterparts are given space, time, and license to register their own histories. In this way, First Day distressingly configures the absent queer body as a blank slate upon which a heterocentric society may impress its own mystifications, and so draws our attention to the truly political nature of mourning and grief.
This is why the promise of the second act, when we finally get to meet Ollie, is so immense. By giving Ollie an opportunity to speak for himself, potentially against the narratives that suppress the trauma of his death, Salerno invests him with the capacity to radically disrupt the erasures that structure heterocentric forms of remembrance.
When we finally encounter him, however, this promise goes largely unfulfilled. He feels no more or less developed as a character than the cartoonish figures who recall him in vague detail throughout the first act. Rather than unfolding him as a specifically human figure that undermines the students’ narratives by overflowing them, Salerno tends to portray Ollie as little more than the precise embodiment of those narratives. This relatively exact fidelity doubles up on the impossibility of seeing Ollie’s death as enacting a traumatic emptiness. Rather, the fissure opened by his suicide seems completely, and unproblematically, sutured in advance.
Of course, this could simply be a function of the production’s tight run time. One thirty- minute act doesn’t leave much space for the sort of fine-grain detail that may have lent Ollie’s appearance more gravity. Nonetheless, for a play that seems to at least implicitly explore the theme of absence, the final moment of presence seems to lack a measure of significance.
Despite Salerno’s admirable character work and his truly sensitive engagement with a volatile issue, then, this attenuation of the show’s central trauma feels like a missed opportunity, and unfortunately frustrates an otherwise well-developed production.