Michael Kearns: Becoming – Triptych in Reds

Michael Kearns

Michael Kearns’ artist-activist stance has been internationally on view and lauded for more than four decades. Produced throughout in America, Europe and Australia throughout the 80s and 90s, the solo performance that put Kearns on the map was intimacies, an exploration of marginalized populations who contracted HIV. His openness as a gay man with HIV has driven much of his drama, onstage and off, including the adoption of an African-American baby in 1995. Kearns lives in Los Angeles with his daughter, Tia, and continues to theatrically depict AIDS as well as other socially-relevant art.

Kearns as Tennessee

Kearns as Big Red, intimacies



Becoming Tennessee (In Red)


I scoured the thrift shops

Looking for the perfect sport coat

Maybe checkered black and white

Or jazzy plaid of multi-colors


How to capture Mr. Tennessee

Williams’ unbridled persona

His black depression

His Southern gentility

His shadowed humor


The costume helps this actor find

The character

Informs my movement

Fabric on skin

Provides me with voice

Gestures that invoke his spirit

His languidness, that luscious drawl


A pair of polyester pants

Vintage (at least fifty years old)

Seduce me from the hanger

“I’ll transform you into

Your playwright hero”

They shouted in their entire ruby



Not the color of a clown’s nose

Or a politician’s tie

Clara Bow’s cupid lips

Or the Pope’s designer pumps


The red of burns

Bloodshot eyes

As crimson as a king’s royal robe


Perhaps the shade of Blanche’s lipstick

On Stanley’s neck

Or the dried blood

On Sebastian’s chest

Maybe the color of Brick’s bruises

But not the blue of Laura’s roses


The magical pants

Encase my thighs

Hug my balls

Nestle my cock

Say hello to my butt

Inspire my gait


Beating beneath his heart

Below his belt buckle

That fecund area

Is the decoder of Williams’

Roughed up spirit


Either of us

Growing up in St. Louis

In the Twentieth Century

Could have been stomped

To death

Simply for sporting those

Blatant (sissy) pants


Tenn, baby

Big brother

Big Daddy

I want to bequeath you

One-hundred red roses


Thousands of petals

Falling at your feet

As we walk the red carpet

In our hot hot trousers

Showing off our true colors






Becoming Camille



“That’s my daddy”

My daughter announces

To her teenage girlfriends

With both pride and defiance

Pointing to the painting that

Occupies what seems like a city block

Of wallspace in my bedroom


The artwork is obstreperously


The colors so voluptuous

One almost senses

The paint still wet


The startling red of the voluminous dress

With lacey elbow-length gloves

And wet luscious lips


Ignore the hint of an Adam’s apple

Look instead at her anguished eyes

Masterfully crafted by the brushes

Of a makeup man, then a painter

And filled in by the actor’s

Fevered identification

With the character

He’s portraying


Daddy is Camille

–playing Camille that is–

The florid whore of

Charles Ludlam’s parody

Every inch a tragic diva

(Including the mannish hands)


But it’s Camille’s flushed heart

I needed to transplant into

My male body

In order to become her

I required an alchemic blood transfusion


For her deathbed scene

When the delicately rouged

Cheekbones of the painting

Had been erased


And replaced by hallowed cheeks

Of the doomed

Like the men I’d held

Who died of AIDS


Whose beauty was short-lived

In spite of being immortalized

In dramatic paintings

On slinky celluloid

Or both


I must be able to

Spit up Camille’s blood

(Or was it mine?

Or was it fake?)

–the rubicund color of

roses and cherries—

Into a flimsy handkerchief

Bleached snow white


Tia didn’t tell her friends

(Or did she?)

That her daddy also has infected blood

To match the color of

Camille’s gown afire







Becoming The Other



The silken scarf

Originally dirty white


Dyed red by the blond costumer

Who worked on Star Trek

At Paramount

Who was in my aerobics class

Negative, I believe

(HIV, that is)


Late eighties

When AIDS was an off color

Guessing game

Not quite out of the closet

More black and white

Than primary colors


My menagerie of misfits

Would transition from

The page to the stage

With the help of only

One shared costume piece:


The red scarf

Dyed by the muscular

Anglo-Saxon sexpot

Who worked on the Hollywood lot


It is an off-red

You might say

Not the red of The Red Shoes

Or the cloak of Red Riding Hood


My scarf was the red of


The color of wine

Known to alter personality


I wrapped it around

My head

And it became the luxurious mane

Of streetwalker extraordinaire

Big Red (“named after my hair”)

Whose tresses “fell out by the handful”

After chemotherapy


There was Mike

A hemophiliac

Routinely enwrapped 

In blood-soaked bandages


I wrapped it around

My eyes

To convey the blinding CMV


Homeless Phoenix

(“named after the city, not the bird”)

Endured in tandem with the DTs


The priest

Wore the scarf

—gracefully, almost theatrically—

Say it: femininely


Around his neck

Strangling his Catholicism

With the vestment

Only one of father’s many lies


Wrapped around the waist

Of the flamenco dancer

The scarf caught fire

When he stomped the floor

As the flaming madness of dementia

Overtook him


“It’s like the scarlet letter”

The butch brother of Joe

(A boyfriend of mine

Who died of AIDS)

Said to me

After a show in Chicago



The scarf’s color has faded a bit

But not lost its myriad meanings

Always reminding me of





Read more from Michael here on his website which includes links to various article


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