Actor, director and playwright Jeffrey Solomon happily acknowledges that the landscape for gays and lesbians in America has changed dramatically since 1998, when he first performed “Mother/SON,” a solo show about a Jewish mother’s journey from deep disappointment to full acceptance of her gay son’s sexual orientation in the early 1990s. The award-winning play, written and acted by Solomon, will be on stage at Baltimore’s Theatre Project from Aug. 14 to Aug. 17.
“At that time, there were very few images of gay people on television or in the movies, and the ones who did exist were stereotypical and negative,” Solomon said. “For many people, the idea of being gay was this dark, mysterious, scary thing. There has been great change. On the other hand, I see how most parents still go through the same stages [from grief to acceptance] when their kids come out. The idea of being gay is OK for other people’s children.”
Still, he said, “when there was less talk and less visibility, it was easier to stay in the closet much longer.”
An Emmy Award-nominated television writer for children’s programming, Solomon plays both the son, Brad Levy, and his stereotypical Jewish mother, Mindy Levy.
“My mother [who passed away in 1998] was a wonderful Jewish woman and Jewish mother, and I like to say that the stereotype of the Jewish mother is based on her,” he said, laughing. “The play gets at the core of that mother-son relationship. She was hyper-involved in her kids’ lives and was an unconditional and fierce defender of her son.”
As the play opens, Mindy pressures Brad about calling the latest in a string of eligible young women with whom she has tried to fix him up.
At his wits’ end and exhausted from carrying on a charade, Brad finally spills the beans, leaving his mother stunned and, for once, speechless.
For years, Solomon said of his own mother, “she was desperately trying to understand, and sometimes she was still trying to make me straight. Meanwhile, I was passionately trying to be understood, and sometimes I felt resentful that I needed to justify my life to her.”
Yet, Solomon realized that prior to his coming out, his mother had no reference point to help her understand how it might be possible for a gay man to lead a happy life.
“The people who love us have a lot of the same emotions many of us did as young gay people,” he said. “Denial, fear, shame, growing understanding and eventually, as with my mom, acceptance.”
Mother/SON’s Jewish appeal goes beyond the depiction of Solomon’s Jewish mother, even touching on some more serious themes of Jewish identity.
“There is one scene in the play when my mother goes to a PFLAG (Parents, Family Friends and Allies of LGBT People] meeting, and she is asked if she has ever known anyone who was gay,” said Solomon. “At first she says she doesn’t know, but then she remembers a gay hairdresser she used to see in a beauty parlor in her neighborhood in Flatbush when she was a young girl. She remembers how she and her girlfriend used to peek in the windows of the beauty shop and laugh at him. One day her mother pulled her aside and said, ‘We don’t laugh at people who are different, because we are Jews.’
“I don’t know if that actual incident took place, but that idea of accepting ‘the other’ and of Jews being ‘the other’ was definitely reflected in my family and in my life,” he added.
After his parents divorced, Solomon moved with his mother to the New London, Conn., area where there were very few Jews.
“I was different and I encountered a lot of anti-Semitism,” said Solomon. “I had to be strong and proud of my Jewish identity, and I think it helped both my mother and me to accept my being gay.”
Jewish audiences may also be amused by the play’s depiction of Mindy’s reaction to Brad’s non-Jewish boyfriend, Bill, a character based on Solomon’s real-life husband.
“He wasn’t Jewish, but he was a doctor,” said Solomon. “That went a long way in helping my mother to deal with it!”
On opening night, Aug. 14, JQ Baltimore will host a pre-show wine-and-cheese reception at 7 p.m. and a post-show Talk Back with Solomon and area rabbis. For information, visit theatreproject.org.