The Fabulous Brightness of Jimmy Janowski
By Anthony Chase
Jimmy Janowski opened this week in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelky, a one-man show written and originally performed by James Lecesne, based on the author’s own young adult novel.
“It’s a lovely book,” says Janowski. “It is the story of a small town on the Jersey shore, where a young flamboyant teenager goes missing. We meet the inhabitants of the town, and we meet the boy himself through the voices of these ten other characters, whose lives he touched.”
Janowski plays all of these people and provides all of those voices. He is known to Buffalo audiences as the star of Buffalo United Artists (BUA) and one of the region’s most popular actors – indeed, the only Buffalo star who typically gets entrance applause. He is most identified with his great leading lady portrayals in shows like Cleopatra, Mommie Queerest, The Lady in Question, Psycho Beach Party, Rebecca, and his own stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s The Birds. He has, however, also done some powerful work in plays like I am My Own Wife, Gross Indecency, Secrets of the Trade, and The Laramie Project.
On the day of this interview, Janowski has just come for rehearsal for a martini at the Underground Nightclub on Delaware Avenue.
“Please forgive me if I seem a little scattered,” says the beloved actor. “It is strange to rehearse a one-man show. I memorize a bit, and then we put that on stage. We decide what to do with it physically. We decide if it’s working. And then we go back to the beginning and add the next bit. But I find that my brain becomes like a saturated sponge. There are times when it is simply not possible to add one more drop to the Bounty Towel of my brain!”
It seems that Janowski arrived at such a moment in today’s rehearsal.
“Today we added a particularly difficult character,” says Janowski. “He’s a straight bully. He is not the character in the play with whom I identify most closely, but I do find him fascinating! I am having a hard time retaining his style, his arrogance, and things like that. I’ve just been with him for an hour and half, so I’ve been pretending that I’ve just come in from playing video games and saying ‘Fuck New Jersey!’ It was a little grueling!”
Janowski laughs and turns the direction of the conversation.
“I think I’d like to talk a little bit about gay theater,” he says. “I have been wondering if the great gay plays necessarily come from turmoil and anger, and powerlessness, and the need to express something with overwhelming feelings. Consider the great plays that came from the voices of civil rights, and that came out of AIDS, and the voices for human rights and the need for those things.
“I have not seen, recently, a great Laramie Project, which is naturally going to be compared to The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelky. We are talking about the same idea – a boy goes missing and we learn about him through the voices of other people and how he affected them. I was wonderfully fortunate to be a part of The Laramie Project, when we did it at BUA. I remember how it inspired the audience from their gut to be angry. I really think they were angry. We needed that voice; we needed that anger to motivate us to get something done. It was the time.
“This play, I feel is almost in the same tragic way, but in some way a healing balm. It comes from love and hope, while The Laramie Project was such a bombastic, inspiring call to arms. That is why I like to think that this is where we are in our lives now, dealing with love and hope. Not anger and outrage. Now that is not to say that there aren’t things to be angry and outraged about! I like to think that we are dealing with them differently.”
Janowski elaborates on his point.
“The reason I am doing this play now is that it touches me and moves me,” he explains. “I was becoming concerned that the only plays that have been attracting me are the great comedies. It is not often that I find a play that has great gravitas, that moves me, makes me laugh, and has a message -- and that touches everyone in the audience. That, I believe, is the only theater that is important -- something that touches everyone in the audience. I remember the power of doing Bent!”
Bent, by Martin Sherman is about gay men during the Nazi era.
“The first time we saw Bent, My God!” exclaims Janowski. “It touched us on many levels. It was not just this little gay story; it touched everyone.”
For contrast, the actor offers an example.
“Then there were shows like La Cage aux Folles. That was gay theater for straight audiences. We all went to see it! We all loved it! But AIDS was happening all around us, and for us it was pablum.
“By contrast Torch Song Trilogy was a landmark, groundbreaking. I think that in the future Torch Song will be seen as being as significant as Angels in America. It was so human, and it reached the common experience of everyone. Every person in the audience was touched by this mother and son story. They were touched by loneliness, by unrequited love. Everyone was touched by that, and it made no difference that it was a man telling that story – and that is what made that moment important. The realization that we are all the same people.”
“I’m a little concerned that some of the new gay plays we are seeing now, seem inconsequential to me. There have been whimsical comical sex comedies for straight people. Now, I guess, it’s our turn.
“We are grateful that we can live in the world with dignity, but is the ability to see Rupaul on television and call each other bitches really what we’ve gained from all the struggles? Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to be preached to. Who does? I recognize the value of pure entertainment, but I think we also need to touch our common core of emotions.
“The plays that we will remember across generations are the stuff of opera,” he says. “Think of Angels in America. Can we separate the great plays from their time? What is the great message for today?
“So that is what I am thinking about while I am doing this wonderful play,” concludes Janowski. “I look at where we’ve come now as gay people, and this is certainly one of the things the play deals with. Yes, we have some level of acceptance. And yes things have changed, but in some ways not so much. I am thinking about that.”