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Bobby Bermea: Lighting a Fuse under ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’

Ernie Lijoi's new musical, about the day the nuclear bomb DOESN'T drop, takes the spotlight at Fuse's OUTwright Festival.

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From left: Kate Faye Cummings, Alec Lugo, Mak Kastelic in rehearsal for Ernie Lijoi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Photo: Rusty Tennant

The press release for The Pursuit of Happiness, the showcase production of this season of Fuse Theatre’s OUTwright Festival, reads in part: “The Pursuit of Happiness is a musical based on a movie that was based on the book that the musical is about. Underneath it all is a contemporary commentary on the repetitive cycle of trauma inflicted upon our Queer community by the gods/politicians/authors who exploit us sacrificially as a self-serving nod to inclusion, and how the only escape from this fate is to reclaim our own narratives. Oh, but don’t worry… it’s a comedy!”

If there’s one artist in the Portland theater scene who could deliver on a work of art that promises so much, it would be musician/composer/writer/actor Ernie Lijoi. The company would have to be Fuse Theatre Ensemble. And the place and the time you’d be most likely to see such an event would be at Fuse’s annual OUTwright Festival, which runs June 1-27, and which (along with the Vanport Mosaic, going on right now, through Monday, May 29; go check it out) has become one of the signature theatrical and arts events of every season.

Ernie Lijoi, author and composer of “The Pursuit of Happiness.”

If The Pursuit of Happiness is anywhere near as volatile, as daring, as unerring in its aim as Lijoi’s 2016 classic (in my humble opinion) Under the Influence, you can expect to fasten your seatbelt for a bumpy ride, one that will have you hooting, hollering and cracking up at things you probably don’t feel you should be laughing at. “Irreverent” is an understatement with Lijoi. He doesn’t just throw stones at the glass houses of our morals, pretensions, and affectations, he brings a wrecking ball and invites us to be complicit while he swings away.

At the same time, a lot has happened since 2016. In 2023, Lijoi, who once was named “Unsigned Artist of the Year” by no less than Billboard, is now older, wiser, and perhaps more intentional about where he focuses his laser-like precision.

“There was some stuff about Under the Influence that was problematic,” he says now. “If I (were) to do that show now, I’d have to re-write it.” As a “for instance,” he adds, there were some harmful cultural stereotypes that he used satirically. He now feels that even if it’s satire, you’re still presenting those stereotypes and you may inadvertently be causing harm. “At this stage of my writing,” says Lijoi, “I’d find a better way to do it.” 

More intentional, however, does not mean less daring or less ambitious. In fact, The Pursuit of Happiness sounds like the most ambitious project, thematically, structurally, and musically, that Lijoi has ever attempted as a playwright and composer. 

In rehearsal for “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Photo: Rusty Tennant

The premise of Pursuit sounds simple enough, and rife with dramatic possibilities, as the Fuse website notes: “A nuclear bomb is headed our way. In a panic, three couples divulge their deepest, darkest secrets, revealing the hidden truths and traumas of their existences. But when the bomb never lands, they find their secrets may be more dangerous.”

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The play’s full title is The Pursuit of Happiness: the Wacky Lesbian Adventures of Brillo Pad and Hula Hoop, and the work has been in development of some kind or another since even before Under the Influence.

“It started out as a ten-minute play I wrote for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York City,” Lijoi says. “I wrote a play about a bunch of people who are in their backyards with their neighbors and they suddenly discover they’re about to die because a bomb is about to fall on them and they start getting in arguments, confess all their secrets and the play ends at that moment when they find out it was a false alarm and now they’re stuck staring at each other with everything left on the table and it left it open-ended. That turned into the opening number for this piece.”  

Years later, an event happened that both galvanized Lijoi and gave him a real-world grounding for his play. “In 2018, if you remember, there was a nuclear threat in Hawaii,” he recalls. “For thirty minutes, people thought they were going to die. They were calling loved ones, texting.” 

(Indeed, on January 13 of 2018, an erroneous missile warning was sent out to Hawaii residents, a message that ended with the words, “This is not a drill.” It wasn’t, but it was an error.) 

“So when that happened,” Lijoi says, “it brought that piece back to me. I thought, ‘That’s my launching point for this new musical.’ For a lot of writer/composers, that might be plenty to work with. But Lijoi was just getting started. Stephen Sondheim, Greek theater, C.S. Lewis, and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 all made appearances as major influences on the piece.

Duck and cover: From left, Kate Faye Cummings, Alec Lugo, Sofia Molina, Brian Burger, Ruby Welch, Ernie Lijoi rehearsing “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Photo: Rusty Tennant

Structurally, Pursuit sounds reminiscent of the plays of Jean Genét, whose work often took place within several realities at once. (If you have that seat belt handy, now might be a good time to strap it on.) There is the bomb incident, and gods who deliberately initiated the bomb incident for a specific purpose; there is the book about this incident that the main character wrote; the musical adaptation of that book, which this play is; and the cinematic adaptation of this play, which the characters in the play watch and decide to change the ending of – I think. Whew!

If that sounds like a lot, that’s not by accident. “I intentionally broke the fourth wall,” says Lijoi, “but then I also broke the fifth, sixth, seventh, and however many dimensions there are in physics these days, I think there’s eleven; I broke them all with this piece.” Lijoi’s passion for his art, his ambition, his need to push out the envelope, are all palpable and infectious when he talks: “Even besides the socio-political stuff, I want to challenge the basic form of musical theater.” 

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The Pursuit of Happiness is also dealing with various forms of LGBTQ trauma, for which Lijoi made sure he did the necessary legwork. “I worry that I could be perceived as a hypocrite,” he says in a moment of vulnerability, “writing stories about people exploiting other people’s stories while I’m exploiting other people’s stories.”

To counter that, Lijoi spent a lot of time reaching out to people who had the lived experience and wisdom he did not have on his own. “The authenticity,” he says, “the having representation in the room, listening to the voices of people that you know of, that are of minorities and have different experiences than you, is important. We have representation in the room with our cast and our crew. All of that is very important to me.”

Ruby Welch working on the music for “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Photo: Rusty Tennant

Lijoi sees none of that as an imposition, but rather, as a creative opportunity: “There’s a character in the play, who starts as she and becomes nonbinary in Act II, and from the younger cast and crew in our room, I learned a lot about how that should be approached – and some mistakes I made. And there were instances when I got feedback or opinions from them and I was like, ‘Ok, well, that might be true. But these people [in the play] are dealing with that issue so we have to present that issue and not sterilize the piece.’

“There’s a moment in the play where the trans character gets deadnamed. And that brought up a little kerfuffle of ‘Well, you can’t do that,’ and I was like, ‘Well, this happens in real life. And I want to present this to people so that they know it’s a problem.’ There have been moments where things have come up that I didn’t notice that I did. If I didn’t do it with intent, then they have every right to call me on it. All that conversation is super-important, especially if you want to create a truly inclusive atmosphere.”

And what about the raw, edgy humor that drew so many to Lijoi’s work in the first place? “It still has the humor in it,” he says — and he is definitely one of those “twinkle-in-the-eye” types — “because I can’t not make things funny.”

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Of course, The Pursuit of Happiness: the Wacky Lesbian Adventures of Brillo Pad and Hula Hoop is “only” the flagship production of Fuse’s OUTwright Theatre Festival, which has been going strong since 2011. As always, OUTwright is a mixture of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, and various works on various stages in various stages of production, all of which you are encouraged to check out, because oftentimes, what happens at OUTwright will find another life someplace else sometime in the future.

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Pursuit is happening at Reed College, in the 99-seat Black Box space of the Performance Art Building, where Fuse artistic director Rusty Tennant teaches, and all the other workshops and readings will be happening at Fuse’s home base, the Back Door Theatre

Mikki Gillette, author of “Blonde on a Bum Trip” in the OUTwright Festival

The irrepressible Mikki Gillette, Fuse board member (as are Tennant and Lijoi) and wildly prolific playwright, is back with yet another tale to tell, Blonde On a Bum Trip, which “follows pioneering trans actresses Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis as they claw their way from off-off-Broadway experimental theatre to underground film stardom in Andy Warhol’s factory scene.”

Gillette has been on a tear of late, not just with sheer volume of output but reaching new artistic heights, following her sold-out comedic hit, My Perfectly Valid Objections (Salt and Sage Productions) with the even more impactful American Girl (Fuse Theatre Ensemble), about the difficult life and tragic death of trans teen Nikki Kuhnhausen. Gillette is in her moment, and this is a chance to see a blossoming playwright in the midst of the act of creation. 

The other pieces sound no less inviting. Crumbs, by Ash, is the workshop, so it’s more than a reading, but not a full-on production. It’s a one-act musical that tells the story of “a queer polyamorous throuple of color” that manages to escape the “oppressive systems of the world we inhabit,” and “raises their two children in a utopia at the edge of the map. But when one of the three parents dies, shattering their idyllic endeavor, the family now faces a terrible decision: Can they live in the ruins of a broken dream or will they return to the nightmare of the old world?”

There are two more readings. Queen of the Desert, by Carlos Zenen Trujillo, is “based on the true story of Brigham Young’s son, B. Morris Young, also known by their drag name Madam Pattirini,” which, who knew? This is also a fourth-wall-shattering musical (Mormon hymns, no less – this gets more and more intriguing) so another sensory, complex experiment.

Finally, Sappho, the Tenth Muse, by Raven Jazper-Hawke, offers “a fresh perspective on the 6th century BCE lesbian poet Sappho,” and “features six personifications of love gathered at the Temple of Aphrodite, reflecting on how Sappho’s poetry has influenced their unique expressions of love.” As can be expected at just about every OUTwright show (or Fuse show, for that matter), Sappho is directly and unabashedly challenging the dominant societal paradigm and reclaiming a queer narrative from the system that has distorted and exploited it. 

Every year Fuse’s OUTwright Theatre Festival is an intentional, artistic engine of change, a determined examination of everything American culture takes for granted as “good” or “moral” or “decent.” And every year this examination is explored with risk-taking art. This year’s festival promises to be no different. Check it out. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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