When it comes to Tim Miller, I lack much of anything you could reasonably call objectivity.
This incisive, brilliant man seems to me — in a term I think he would probably disavow with vehemence — the voice of his generation. Not simply those at the tail-end of the Baby Boom, but a more specific demographic: 40-ish gay men who came of age in a time of sweet abandon which, all too soon, became a nightmare. Men — like me — who must look at the world (or more to the point, the country) around them through a prism of disillusionment, rage, and resolution knowing that, whatever our gains, a basic human grace is beyond our grasp.
Miller's current performance piece, US (presented Sept. 18-21 in Durham, NC, as part of "Don't Ask Don't Tell 2003," Manbites Dog Theater's 10th annual festival of queer theater and performance) will be his last as a permanent resident of the United States. If that fact doesn't shake you, it should.
On October 3rd, the visa held by Alistair, Miller's Australian-born partner of nine years, will expire. With no legal standing as a couple in the Land of the Free, the pair will be forced to immigrate to Great Britain. The government that attempted to still Miller's artistic voice a decade ago (when, as one of the "NEA Four," his federal grant was rescinded — he fought that one, and won) has found an effective means of getting rid of him altogether — one a great deal easier, and right under its nose all along.
Because while these two have been together nearly a decade, they lack the right to marry, which would give Alistair an automatic reprieve. That this basic right, granted (as Miller puts it) to "any straight couple who've known each for five minutes" is denied these two and countless others, is the basis upon which Miller builds the edifice he calls US.
That simple moniker contains a world of meaning. As a word, "us" refers not only to Miller and his partner, but also to every gay person in America — even to our society as a whole. As an acronym, of course, it stands for the country itself. The central question, to Miller, is not "What's wrong with us?" but "What's wrong with US?"
As with all of Miller's performances, US takes in its author's autobiography, making the specific universal and the idiosyncratic a metaphor. In pondering which personal necessities to take with him on his journey, the performer begins with that cultural artifact so crucial to the shaping of his (and I would say, legions of gay men's) identity, the Original Cast Album.
For Miller, these recordings were "where [he] learned about the world... they were [his] finishing school." As he lays a series of LP jackets on the stage floor, they become his stepping stones: "A bridge to my future." For the queer-in-training, Broadway scores are a kind of talisman; they evoke dreams, legitimize yearnings, and illuminate a sense of ethics. "Who needed Marx and Engels," Miller asks, "when you had Rodgers and Hammerstein?" (Not that they can serve every need: while preparing his "one-hour fifth grade adaptation of Hamlet" Miller's choice of incidental music — the overture to Hello, Dolly! — was nixed by an older brother. Probably only Miller himself could explain that peculiar artistic association.)
The solace he takes in these totems is only one of many instances in which Miller's past, his passions, and the creative commingling of the two, strike a plangent chord in me. When he considers the concomitantly soothing and inflaming images he sought in the National Geographic, he could be reading a page from my own adolescence (for me it was underwear pages in the Sears catalogue.) When he talks of affecting an English accent, he brings me up with a start; I did the same thing when I was 17. And when he broods on the part the televised images of that living room war we called Vietnam might play in his own future, the conclusions he reaches ("I knew it would go on forever ... and I knew I didn't want to die") are the same ones that caused me so many sleepless 12-year-old nights.
US reaches its emotional zenith when Miller and Alistair, "planning [their] exile" from America, visit Niagara Falls in hopes of a Canadian wedding. And it is here that Miller's unique observational gifts attain their richest images: Observing the — sometimes openly hostile — heterosexual couples promenading "like shabby Balkan royalty." Standing in the middle of that loaded metaphor which links the U.S. and Canada, the achingly-named Rainbow Bridge. Watching as police officers from both sides engage in an annual tug-of-war that somehow metastasizes into the struggle taking place within Miller's own conflicted psyche. Wondering how a nation that in its much-vaunted love of peace has casually sanctioned its own invasions of "112 countries in the past 58 years" can so blithely dismiss any two souls caught in the hopeful embrace of love.
The ritual doffing of his clothes during his performances brought Miller his initial notoriety, and has become its own kind of artistic curse — a weapon with which the biased and the ignorant (so often the same) can pummel him. But those who take this symbolic unveiling out of context miss the point, as they always do. Becoming naked is intrinsic to Miller's work, and to our understanding of it. For him, this act of "stripping in the light" is a creative means to an instructive end: "Stripping away lies, stripping away hypocrisy." It is, quite literally, the way Tim Miller gets to the naked truth, of his life and of ours.
Finally, heartbreakingly, US boils itself down to an essential desire. "Someday," Miller concludes, "I want there to be less fear in US — less fear of us." Maybe when a sufficient number of native artists are self-exiled to other lands? (And how many are too many? One, I would think, is one too far.) Or perhaps when enough of us face our own October 3rd.