Shove It Down My Throat is a gonzo true-crime story about homophobia, violence, sex and mystery.
With outrageous cases like that of Empire actor Jussie Smollet and heartbreaking events like the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, it is an important time for plays like Shove It Down My Throat to be recognized and produced. This world premiere of a new play by Johnnie Walker is part of the 40th anniversary season at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a production company whose mission is to present voices that question sexual and cultural norms by developing queer stories for the stage.
Described by Walker as “the funniest show about hate crime [you]’ve ever seen”, Shove It Down My Throat is the exploration of a true crime story – a controversial knife fight that took place at an Atlanta, Georgia New Year’s party in 2013. Luke O’Donovan says he was the victim of a queer-bashing, but was arrested by police and portrayed by the media as a maniac who went on a stabbing spree.
The Making of Shove It Down My Throat
Playwright and lead actor, Johnnie Walker assumes the role of investigative journalist to create what he describes as an often unabashedly subjective examination of the events, the bizarre and almost unprecedented legal aftermath, and his own encounters with O’Donovan and those involved.
As a co-production between Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Toronto indie company Pandemic Theatre, with a team of celebrated Canadian artists and a script developed in collaboration with Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, Shove It Down My Throat is an excellent representation of Canadian theatre.
Walker is directed by Pandemic Theatre’s Artistic Director Tom Arthur Davis and is supported by an ensemble made up of the best local theatre, drag, burlesque, and comedy performers: Daniel Carter, Willard Gillard, Kwaku Okyere, Craig Pike, Heath V. Salazar, and Anders Yates. The set and costumes are designed by Anahita Dehbonehie, with lighting by Rebecca Vandevelde and sound by Jivesh Parasram.
Dobbernationloves had the opportunity to ask Walker about his play and process, the theatre industry, and even who he thinks should see Shove It Down My Throat at Buddies Toronto. He discusses what these polarizing cases mean to the queer community when it comes to violence and victimhood, and our relationship with the police and legal system wether in the southern United States or in Canada.
His responses beam with pride for his work and sturdy convictions about our culture, yet levity and simplicity leaving us eager to see his voice brought to life on stage. Performances run from March 30th through April 14th.
Do you play yourself in Shove It Down My Throat?
Let’s just say I’m playing a writer named Johnnie who looks an awful lot like me. “Play Johnnie” goes through a lot of the same things that “Real Johnnie” went through while writing and investigating the show. My previous plays have all been fictional, so something that became apparent very early on in the process was how different it was to be writing about real people and real events. There were many times I felt more like a journalist than an artist.
Inserting myself into the narrative started with just me sitting in a room trying to piece together what happened to Luke, and it felt like a much more honest and authentic place to be writing from than trying to recreate what actually happened to him and present it as an objective truth. And this is a story in which the truth becomes very slippery indeed and the play revels in its subjectivity. Play Johnnie, alongside his trusty Queer Chorus, acts as a kind of de facto theatre scientist, testing out the different variations of Luke’s story and trying to determine which (if any) hold water.
How did you develop Shove It Down My Throat?
This has been the longest play development process of my life! I broke ground on the project back in 2014 during a residency at Videofag, shortly after receiving my first letter from Luke. I got in touch with his support committee, Let Luke Go, who encouraged me to write to him in prison, and he actually wrote back quite quickly. We kept up a correspondence while he was incarcerated, although at the time he was receiving a ton of letters from people all over the world, so the conversation moved quite slowly.
Luke was given a ten-year sentence, but only made to serve two of those years in prison, so we reconnected over email once he was released and I was able to meet him in person a couple of years ago. I actually sent him a draft of the play in January, which was a kind of nerve-wracking experience, but he’s really been incredibly forthcoming and supportive of the project from Day One.
I was also able to interview several other people connected to the story, including the woman who drove Luke to the hospital the night of the incident, some friends of his who also attended the New Year’s party, and a journalist named Meredith Talusan who wrote a remarkable long-form piece called The Queer Case of Luke O’Donovan, which was one of the most incredible resources I had available to draw from for this project.
I made the conscious decision early on in the process not to directly contact the other men involved in the knife fight because their side of the story has already been told. Their variation on the narrative was reported by the Atlanta media and won the day in court. I did, however, reach out to one of their mothers, who sent me an amazing response that very nearly made it into the final draft of the play.
How do you think Atlanta played into the events that took place?
Before working on this project, I’d never been to Atlanta. My main cultural reference point for the city was Designing Women. And I found it so interesting how differently people would react to hearing Luke’s story in relation to its location. Some people would say: “Oh, it’s the South, what do you expect?” Others would say: “But how could something like that happen in a cosmopolitan city like Atlanta?”
When I went on a research trip to Atlanta, I met with Luke’s friends, I went to see the house where the fight occurred, but I also tried to get a broader sense of what the city is like as a whole. I specifically arrived during Atlanta Pride weekend so that I could see what the city was like at its most (theoretically) queer-friendly, and so that I could stick around for a few days after and see what happened when things went back to normal.
There’s so much about Atlanta that I fell in love with during that trip, but there are also things about what happened with Luke’s case there that I don’t think could happen in the same way here. The paucity of local media coverage outside of the initial news reports that portrayed Luke as a crazed killer I cannot imagine in connection to a similar case in Toronto. And the bizarre addendum to his sentencing wherein he is essentially banished from returning to his home state is based on some pretty arcane Georgia legal nonsense.
What effect do gay bashing cases have on young people?
The real problem is that as a culture, we love a victim, but hate a survivor. We like simplicity in these kinds of stories, and the simplest kind of victim is a dead one. What happens if you’re attacked, but you survive? What happens if you fight back? What happens if, from some perspectives, it seems like you actually won the fight? Do you still get to claim victim status?
Luke is also an Anarchist, and one of the reasons he wasn’t able to control his own narrative initially was due to his reluctance to cooperate with the police—which he also connected to the fact that the Atlanta Police Department has a pretty antagonistic relationship with the city’s queer community, including a notorious raid of the gay bar The Atlanta Eagle. And here in Toronto, we also have a police department with an exceptionally rocky relationship with the LGBT community. I would never fault anyone who didn’t feel comfortable coming forward with these kinds of stories—until we see real systemic, societal change, it simply isn’t a safe choice for many queer people to make.
Did any of your preconceived notions and opinions of O’Donovan change?
Hahaha, this is literally the whole show! It’s a rollercoaster!
How would you describe the tone of this play?
I keep telling people it’s gonna be the funniest show about hate crime they’ve ever seen! For me, humour is always the way in. If we wanna go to the deep and dark and scary places, jokes are the torches that will light our way. I’m sure many people will expect the show to be incredibly heavy because of the subject matter, and I’m not saying we don’t go to some very uncomfortable places or that the show isn’t likely to provoke some intense responses, but for me, I always need fun and playfulness and pleasure to be a part of the experience when making a play.
We also have a big shift between Act One and Act Two, where the former tends to live in a kind of goofy, campy, screwball world, and the latter is a bit stranger and dreamier. We go all over the place, but I promise, we have a plan.
How did you decide to take on an acting role in Shove It Down My Throat?
I’d like to think that if I’d tried to direct this show as well, someone would have stopped me! Writing and performing it is already more than enough to completely consume my life. I’m sure some people can pull off the hat-trick of doing all three of those things at once, but it honestly sounds like Hell to me. I’m very lucky to have my dear friend Tom Arthur Davis helming this one—we’ve worked together in the past, so he’s got a good grasp on the kind of world my writing likes to live in.
What do you say to those who believe we must choose one role in theatre?
Oh, it’s so boring when people say that! And coming up, there would always be someone saying to me “Oh, you must never direct your own work! Oh, don’t act in your own work!” What did they know? I spent my whole 20s running an indie theatre company with my best friend where we had to do everything ourselves—including staying up til 3 in the morning sewing together a dead goose prop. That’s how you learn.
And even if you wind up doing something you never want to do again, at least you’ll have learned how to hold some respect for it. Actually, compared to some of those productions, my role on Shove It Down My Throat is relatively light! I’m still amazed sometimes to realize that this incredible team of people are working to bring my words to life often in ways that are completely invisible to me.
Who should come see Shove It Down My Throat?
It’s definitely a show for grown-ups: we’ve got bad words and sex and violence and all the fun stuff. Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to limit it. Obviously I want lots of queer people to come see it; the whole show is in a way my love letter to the LGBT community. But, you know, bring your mom too?
By Bryan Hindle
Shove It Down My Throat
by Johnnie Walker
directed by Tom Arthur Davis
starring Johnnie Walker, Daniel Carter, Willard Gillard, Kwaku Okyere, Craig Pike, Heath V Salazar + Anders Yates
set + costume design by Anahita Dehbonehie
lighting design by Rebecca Vandevelde
sound design by Jivesh Parasram
assistant directed by Rhiannon Collett
stage managed by Waleed Ansari
production management by Oz Weaver
12 Alexander Street, 416-975-8555
Previews: March 30th + 31st, April 2nd
Opening Night: April 3rd
Closing Performance: April 14th
Runs: Tues-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm
Tickets: PWYC – $40
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