It takes a brave man to become an actor for the first time at age 59 — and to write his own play as well. It’s also brave to admit you had no idea your brother was gay until a stranger told you, and to relive his death from AIDS in front of an audience.
But this is exactly what Tacoma artist Peter Serko has done with “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg,” his one-man multimedia play that premiered last February, played in upstate New York over the summer, and is on again now at Dukesbay Theater. Serko tells a powerful story of AIDS history through an intimate, painful lens.
But a brave man and a good story don’t necessarily add up to great theater.
It’s a conundrum becoming more common in this Internet age of sharing: Everyone has stories, but not everyone is trained or talented enough to tell them compellingly. In “My Brother,” Serko – with the help of dramaturge Bryan Willis, director Richard Montague and stage/lighting designer Dante Fields – is almost there. His show is well-structured, polished and seamless knitting spoken word, movement, photos, video and audio. Yet there are slow moments and an overall stiltedness that take away from this powerful story of David Serko’s joyful life and awful death.
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Sharing the intimate Dukesbay stage with a sportsbar-size screen and a few well-chosen props, Serko begins his tale with a swift-punch timeline video: the mounting death toll from AIDS alternating with photos from his brother David’s childhood and youth and — finally — his tombstone. It sets the scene perfectly to get our sympathy for this character, a charming child and loving, talented man who made it to Broadway as a singer/dancer before dying of AIDS at 32, just a few years before drug cocktails turned the epidemic’s tide. Segueing neatly into his own profession (photography), his pre-HIV relationship with David and David’s own journey, Peter Serko delivers his monologue with precision. Yet it’s sometimes too swift for clarity, and sometimes too forced-slow for passion, each phrase winding down with a measured, “my-director-told-me-to-pause” pause.
Then we hear just why Serko is performing this play now, 26 years after his brother’s death. Inspired by a memory quilt made by David’s female relatives, Serko decided to create an “aural quilt” and discover more of David’s life in the process. Using Facebook (prompting the somewhat-click-bait title), he connected with dozens of his brother’s friends, lovers and colleagues, collecting interviews, audio, photos, even spoof videos his brother made of vintage films. The depth of the research is astounding (and visible on the project’s website) but the stories are even more so. A footnote in a Wikipedia article turned up a photograph of his brother being arrested at an Act Up AIDS protest in 1988. A fellow activist from the group’s early days ended up being David’s nurse until his death. And throughout, Peter Serko builds the picture of a man who was universally loved and admired, and who made people feel loved in turn.
Best of all, Serko tells the history of the AIDS crisis through a highly memorable lens — a crucial key to getting younger generations reared on LGBTQ support groups and same-sex marriage to understand its significance.
Serko already has invitations to take the show to venues like Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington-Tacoma, and Seattle Repertory, as well as at Tacoma Art Museum during the national exhibition “Art, AIDS, America” in the fall. It’s a brilliant medium for education and dialogue — which could be a lot more powerful with some editing.
Thanks to clever, subtle lighting and a few key props, “My Brother” turns from mere TED talk into actual theater. But the script is long-winded, poetic in structure but not in imagery, and compared to Serko’s highly approachable chat-back afterward, often stilted and impersonal. This is partly understandable; he’s not an actor. But to sound like theater rather than a book, the script needs a lot of tightening, the dramatics more variety.
David Serko’s story is tragic and moving, but so are many other stories. With just a bit more tweaking, his story can move beyond one man’s grief and become another shining avatar of the gay rights movement.