Friday, July 1, 2011

Interview with Jeff Key of "The Eyes of Babylon"

By Byrne Harrison

Jeff Key (playwright/actor) is a former Marine, Iraq war veteran, peace activist and queer civil rights activist. He sits on the Board of Directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War and is the founding board member of The Mehadi Foundation, which provides support for returning veterans and develops philanthropic projects; specifically, clean water supplies and other basic necessities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Key is an award-winning playwright, performer and author of The Eyes of Babylon and two other plays in development. He is also the subject of the Showtime documentary Semper Fi. Key lives in Salt Lake City with his husband, Adam, a second-year medical student at the University of Utah.

Tell me a little bit about Eyes of Babylon.

Never heard of it. THE Eyes of Babylon is my solo show. That’s a little writers’ joke there. Tennessee Williams often lamented the constant lopping off of the “the” in front of The Night of the Iguana. He was quoted as saying that a writer spends hours of anguish debating over the placement of a single article or preposition only to have it severed completely in a hastily written press release. I take no offense. I only mention it in hopes that Cousin Tom is somewhere up there enjoying a mint julep and smiling down at me as I struggle along a path he knew all too well.

The play is based on my Iraq War journals. In fact, more than simply based on them, the monologues that appear on stage are pretty much straight out of those sandy pages. I wrote in my journals in present tense while I was in Iraq so the entries lend themselves easily to the sort of Southern storytelling format of the play. With the exceptions of excerpts of three letters, The Eyes of Babylon takes those journal entries in order and allows the audience member to take the journey I took. The three letters in the play are one to my fellow artists and actors back in Hollywood, one to the family of a guy in my unit who died and my coming out letter to my commanding officer. Upon returning from Iraq, because of my growing fury over the Bush Administration’s injurious foreign and domestic policies and because of my unwillingness to continue to serve under the ludicrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, I wrote to my CO and admitted that I was gay thereby forcing the military to discharge me. I then began to speak very publically about my opposition to the occupation of Iraq, about veterans’ issues and about Queer Civil Rights in America. Although I miss the Marine Corps every single day, I have never regretted that decision. At the same time that I sent the letter, I went on CNN’s Paula Zahn, Now and came out of the closet in an interview, thereby saying to five million people what I at one time would not have said to one other person.

The first incarnation of the play was actually my reading it to my fellow Marines in the desert. One day, quite by “accident,” I ended up reading one of the entries I had written about this stray dog to a Marine who had sort of “adopted” the dog. He was very taken with what I had written so he began to ask me each day what I had written. Word spread and soon I was reading to several Marines each day about the things that we were all experiencing together. I think humans naturally use humor to get through hard times so in the journals, as in the play, there is a lot of laughter. I think it helped us all to weather what could be at times a very difficult experience.

The title comes from one of the journal entries. It’s part of an admonition to my fellow Americans back in the states. While at war, as my concerns about the way the war was begin orchestrated grew, I began to question the entire direction in which our nation had begun to travel. I wrote, “ We stand at a crossroads. The choice? To hold true to the principles for which we say we stand, or to go the way of every other military empire in the history of the world. Choose wisely, the eyes of Babylon are upon you.”

What made you decide to adapt your war journals and letters into play?

I felt that I had to speak out. I don’t really like it when people congratulate me on my decision to do so, because I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice. I was pretty sure that keeping quiet about the war and about “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a path to self-destruction. But I wasn’t really interested in debating the war. I was pretty depressed when I got back and the depression only grew as I came to realize that I would have to leave the Marine Corps that I loved if I was to be true to my own conscience. A big part of that was my straight Marine buddy’s unqualified support of me. In so many ways, by becoming a Marine, I had entered the brotherhood that I had always felt eluded me. For the first time in my life, I was accepted among the pack—my sexuality notwithstanding. The commitment of blood that is shared among that Band of Brothers trumps any silly, trite prejudices continually parroted by right-wingers to keep the poor voting against their best interest.

So when people asked about my time in Iraq, I was always say the same thing. “I’ll read to you from my journals.” They all said the same thing: “You have to do something with these. Publish them!” I wasn’t opposed to the idea but the depression kept me paralyzed. I had lost about twenty pounds while I was at war. When I came back, I just lived off coffee, cheeseburgers and cigarettes. The depression was exacerbated by my extreme lack of physical fitness and my extreme lack of physical fitness exacerbated the depression. It was a vicious cycle which I’m sure would sound familiar to many post-deployment servicemembers. I was in a downward spiral and I feared the worse. I was several years sober at the time (and continue to be to this day). If I had thought that taking a drink would have given me some relief, even for a few minutes, I would have done it. But it had been proven to me over and over that drinking simply doesn’t work for me. So I put other things into the hole in my spirit that I once tried to fill with alcohol. Even though I wasn’t drinking, the addictive pattern was still alive and well in my life and was destined to destroy me. I pretty much lived in the sex clubs of Los Angeles or on on-line hook up sights. I ate the unhealthiest foods I could get my hands on. I smoked like a fiend and drank so much coffee it’s a wonder I didn’t have a heart attack. I also would spend any little bit of money I got my hands on on stupid and useless shit just for the few minutes of relief the purchase seemed to bring. I knew I had to do something or I was going to be sucked all the way down. I prayed for help as I had done when I had hit my alcoholic bottom years earlier. I decided that I had to reach out even more to other alcoholics who were living sober lives. Also, getting back into physical shape was a good next step. I went back to the gym.

One day, after a particularly grueling workout, I spotted this smoking-hot guy toweling off in the locker room. In keeping with my “always on the make” lifestyle at that time, I approached him and said hello. When he spoke, I noticed he had a Middle Eastern accent, I asked him where he grew up (a Southerner’s version of “where are you from?”). He said that he lived in New York but had grown up in Tel Aviv. “Oh, I just got back from the Middle East.” I told him. “I went to Iraq as a Marine.” An IDF veteran of the 1982 Israel/Lebanon war and also a gay man himself, he was curious about my experience at war. I said to him what I always said to people when they asked me that, “I don’t really want to talk about it, but I’ll read to you from my journals.” We got dressed and went to a nearby coffee house. This man, Yuval Hadadi, is the prototype for typical Israeli male; brooding, serious, doesn’t wear his feelings on his sleeve. But when I read to him from my journals, he couldn’t conceal his passion for my writing. Even though we had those other experiences in common; war, serving in the military as gay men, it was really his connection to my writing that began the relationship.

I had a degree in Theatre before I ever joined the Marine Corps (I might have been the only Theatre major in the whole USMC!)

Yuval was about to wrap up a film that he had been directing in LA. He said that he would stay on his own dime if I would consent to let him direct me in a solo performance piece using the journals as the script. His belief in me and in my writing helped to start the long process of pulling out of my PTSD paralysis and depression and into action. He kicked my ass. We flirted and fought our way through a six-week rehearsal process until, on a warm October evening in a small theatre in Hollywood, The Eyes of Babylon opened.

Clearly this is a timely topic both with the continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent developments with Don't Ask Don't Tell. I'm interested in your thoughts about the possible repeal of DADT.

Mostly I’m furious. That sounds awful to say and I am forever grateful to the other people who have worked for so long to end this very un-American policy but at the same time I am absolutely astounded that it has taken this long. I certainly don’t think that’s the fault of the good people working so hard to lift the ban. With all the very serious issues facing our nation; multiple wars, a disastrous economy, how the hell can we continue to justify spending so much time and money on something so asinine as forcing people who are willing to give their lives for this ungrateful country to lie about who they are? It is unforgivable and history will look very dimly on those who have fought so hard on the wrong side, just in the ways it looks back unkindly on those who fought so hard against other forms of Civil Rights. America is for all of us. Otherwise, we might as well close up shop.

I have a straight buddy who’s currently deployed to Afghanistan, and yes he really is straight. On opening night when I got to my dressing room, he had sent flowers from a combat zone! Another man who’s deployed there, whom I’ve never met but saw the Showtime documentary about the play (Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey) found me on Facebook and sent me a message. “I won’t get home from Afghanistan until August but I want to buy my mom a ticket so she can come.” Can you believe that?! What a great son. What a great man. I’ll bet he’s a great Marine as well. Of course I wrote back to him and told him there was no way in hell I was going to let him buy his mother a ticket. She will come as my guest. My own mom is flying from Alabama to see her baby on stage in New York and that’s Marine’s mom will come with her to see it. What an honor it will be to perform to those two women.

As you mentioned, you came out very publicly on CNN. What was that like and what sort of reaction did you get?

You know what? When I walked out of the CNN bureau in Los Angles that day, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. And as difficult as it was, I knew that I would never, could never lie about who I was ever again. No one should ever have to hide who he or she is because of the stupidity of other people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay and the viciousness toward young kids who are LGBTQ and have to live day after day in self-loathing and secrecy is unconscionable. On that day, I just kept thinking that maybe there was some twelve year-old version of myself out there watching that interview who could see me and say, “Well he seems to be okay with who he is. Maybe there’s hope for me.”

These kids are our kids and it’s up to us to protect them. I’m all for being (somewhat) patient as Americans continue to gain education around LGBTQ issues but we must never allow that process to take precedence over looking out for the well-being of our precious queer kids. The ignorance of the masses is not the fault of the kids. They deserve an equal chance at life and all the joy it can bring.

If you could offer any advice to someone who is struggling with the decision to come out, what would you say?

I would say that sometimes the feared repercussions of coming out are real. Unfortunately some people based on their lack of understanding will withdraw from us. But the ones that matter don’t mind and the ones that mind don’t matter. Even some who have a rough time with our becoming honest will ultimately come around. When I came out to my parents, my mother said, “You can’t expect us to accept this” and my dad said, “You know what the bible says about that.” But over time they grew in understanding, and ultimately they were in my wedding along with my straight Marine buddies who performed the famed “arch of swords” as Joan Baez sang “Gracias a la Vida.” It really does get better.

My ongoing recovery from alcoholism has taught me the great value in reaching out to others who have gone down that path before me. The same goes for when people decide to live their lives honestly regarding their sexuality. Seek out people who’ve gone through the experience themselves and let their wisdom and love carry you through.

We care about you! Your other family is waiting for you.

You're active with Iraq Veterans Against the War and are the founding board member of The Mehadi Foundation. Tell me a little bit about these organizations and your involvement with them.

I was one of the early members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. I love those people with all my heart and have been on the front lines of the peace movement with them for years. It takes great courage to speak out, especially when it is unpopular to do so. IVAW has three “points of unity,” 1) To bring the troops home now, 2) take care of them when they get here and 3) make reparations to the innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered because of the US invasions and occupations. I still very much support these points of unity. I do have a concern for the organization as well as for the “left-wing” in America in general. I came to the anti-war movement because I believed (and still do believe) that America’s war policy in Iraq was dangerous, illegal under the Geneva Conventions and immoral. I care very deeply for our troops and to me, their lives were being squandered for monetary gain. But as soon as I went public on this issue, I noticed that I was being “pulled” toward some platforms that do not reflect my point of view. I can see the injury that unrestricted capitalism causes, but I am also not a communist. I don’t trust the government with the money and power we give them now. (They’ve proven they cannot me trusted.) Why in the hell would I want to afford them more money and power? Also, when I was a little boy, I can remember coming up on roadblocks set up to raise money for the Ku Klux Klan. I mean there were literally men standing there in their white sheet costumes taking up money to help spread their message of hate! I just sat there in the back seat and shook and hoped they couldn’t see my homosexuality. A lot of their hatred was directed toward blacks but they also had a blanket contempt for gays and Jews. In the 90s the anti-Semitic/homophobic voice found its home in the neo-Nazi/skinhead movement. In 2011, I have to question where that voice is now. I know that vicious anti-gay rhetoric floods continuously from the pulpits of right-wing Christian fundamentalist churches but where is that voice that wants the destruction of Israel and calls for the killing of Jews? I believe it has found a comfortable home hidden away in the comfortable guise of advocating for the Palestinians. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate for the Palestinians as well and would love to see an end to their suffering. I also know that Israel (like my own nation) has committed horrible atrocities, mostly out of fear (again, like my own nation.) But I do not want to see the nation of Israel destroyed. In fact, as a gay man who’s people died alongside the Jews in the camps in Europe during the Holocaust, I’ll be damned if I’m going to start fighting on the wrong side. Compare life for gays in Tel Aviv to life for gays in Tehran. There is no comparison. The way to helping the Palestinians is definitely not by granting legitimacy to organizations who advocate for the execution of gay people. Hamas, Fatah, the Hezbollah and The Palestinian Authority all do. When they come for me and my Jewish friends this time to disappear us away to death camps, they will meet me at the end of my 2nd Amendment. I know that makes me a bad “peace activist” but that’s the way it is. And I don’t care who in the American left gets pissed off to hear me say so.

There is a resolution which will come to a vote at the Iraq Veterans Against the War convention in August which calls for Israel to return to 1948 borders. If it passes, I will resign from the Board of Directors and leave the organization. (

The Mehadi Foundation is named for a young Iraq boy I met while deployed there. His spirit of hope in great adversity to me symbolized all that I wanted my charity foundation to stand for. We have two missions. 1) To support veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and 2) to support philanthropic/humanitarian efforts to help the innocent civilians in those two countries who have suffered so immeasurably over the last ten years. The main way we aspire to help the veterans (especially those who have begun to self-medicate PTSD with drug, alcohol and process addiction) is to teach creativity as a healing practice. In other words, I want to help them to learn to do what I have done; tell their own story through some creative outlet. It has been my salvation. We also want to get the vets involved in fulfilling the second part of our mission. Helping those who’ve suffered seems to provide solace for those who were involved in causing that suffering. That coupled with the “simple” benefit of helping others makes for a wonderful experience. We have gotten badly needed water filter into schools and provided wheelchairs for those who would otherwise have no access to them. Our dream is to continue to grow in our ability to help with regard to both sides of our mission. We are an IRS recognized 501(c)3 and survive by the donations of those who believe in what we stand for.

You have the play and your nonprofit work. What else is going on in your life?
About seven years ago, I decided to stop looking for the man of my dreams and become him instead. I came to a place where I was tired of looking for someone to “complete” me. I am complete person on my own and I think any person who brings “part of a person” to a relationship in hopes that it will complete him, dooms the relationship from the start. I began to love who I was. It wasn’t long after that that I meant Adam Nelson. (The story of our meeting could make for an entire interview so I won’t go into it here.) He is the kind of man that, every single day I look at him and say, “Really?! He’s really mine?” He is my best friend, my biggest fan, he welcomes my support as he pursues his goals and dreams of becoming a physician. He’s a third-year medical student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake where we live with our four-legged, furry babies. I basically commute to New York as I pursue my goals and dreams as a writer, actor and travel the nation as an activist. We’re hoping that he will be able to do his residency in New York so we can be together all the time again. It’s hard, but our marriage is forged in fire so I think we’ll make out just fine. Incidentally, I think he is the sexiest man alive and I’m getting turned on just writing about him.

If you could say anything to your potential audience, what would it be?

I would say stop being a “potential” audience member and become and audience member. This play is my love letter to the world. It’s what I learned as I walked through war. Please don’t let that be wasted. I’m a man of meager means but I care about humanity. I care about what happens to my country and to all people. We go up against big budget productions who have millions for advertising and we depend on word-of-mouth and the press to fill the seats. If you care about peace, if you care about what’s happening to our troops and if you care at all about “don’t ask, don’t tell” and LGBTQ Civil Rights in general, please take the time to stop in and hear what I have to say. I can promise you a lot of laughs along the way and hopefully you’ll leave feeling inspired to keep marching forward with the rest of us who knew that the brightest days are still ahead.

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