Will Nolan, a graduate of Wake Forest University’s Class of 1994, has inhabited the being of Leola, described as “a Jesus-loving, redneck, senior citizen” who comes out at the ripe age of 71, in productions of Lady Land! in Atlanta, New Jersey and New York.
He brings the play to North Carolina this week for the Greensboro Fringe Festival.
“My best friend growing up in Atlanta and I did sketches,” Nolan said in an interview last week. “Leola came out of a sketch we did. The joke was she was constantly coming out to people. She’s happily married to her best friend, Gus, but she had to come out to him.
She was always well received. She was the redneck grandmother who was sweet, who happened to be a lesbian. I’ve done a little bit of standup and a little bit of sketch comedy. I’ve never done a 45-minute one-act play before. I turned 40 last year, so it was kind of a dare to myself.”
As a college student at Wake Forest two decades ago, Nolan said he spent many weekends in Greensboro and always thought of it “as an artsy, cool city.” He’s excited to return for a fringe festival, which is a natural fit for his play.
Issues surrounding homosexuality and religion, not to mention homosexuality and marriage, have been swirling over the past decade in North Carolina, as they have across the country.
“There’s this dialogue in the country about the issue of gay marriage, sexuality and religion,” Nolan said. “Gay or Christian — there’s this feeling like you can’t do both. This character doesn’t struggle with her religious faith. She discovers her sexuality late in life. The story is about waking up to that and celebrating that.”
Having been raised Catholic in Atlanta 20 years ago, Nolan is sensitive to the anguish experienced by young gays who face rejection from the church when they come out. But that’s not Leola’s particular struggle.
“I still have gay friends raising children who have no religion in their life,” Nolan said. “I’ve been able to distinguish between religion and spirituality. I have a strong faith and spirituality; I haven’t found that building I can go to.
“We have a 6-year-old son we’re raising Jewish,” he added. “My partner and I have found this synagogue that’s accepting of us as two dads, including one who’s not Jewish.”
Nolan said he wanted to avoid writing a play with inside jokes that are only understandable within the gay community. He has been gratified to find that Leola has been embraced by people who are gay and straight, old and young.
“I’ve found in performing especially for a straight audience that there’s an appreciation for the gay experience,” he said. “The evolution of your sexuality, it can happen at 13 or, in her case, 71. The story is not all autobiographical. I’m not an old lesbian. I did have an uncle who came out at 65. I had been out for awhile, so I was the first person he came out to.”
Nolan was also relieved to find that the play translates across the gender gap.
“One of the best compliments I ever got was from an older lesbian friend of mine in her mid-fifties,” he said. “She said, ‘I feel like I have a new lesbian best friend.’ It’s not drag. I’m dressed as a woman, but I’m not trying to hide anything. Gays and lesbians sometimes walk a delicate line with each other and can have different points of reference and different senses of humor. I didn’t know how a younger gay guy playing an older lesbian was going to come across.”
The Fringe Festival, whether in Greensboro or elsewhere, is a unique opportunity to see new theater, Nolan said.
“What excites me about the fringe as a model is that pieces can be hugely successful; they can bomb,” he said. “Audiences go because of the daring of the piece. They’re going to see something that’s provocative that might not be embraced by the mainstream. The production might not be fancy, but the work is really good. There’s a rawness to it. My piece was written specifically for that.”
Lady Land!, a play written and performed by Will Nolan, will be presented on Friday at 10 p.m. and Saturday at 10 p.m. at the City Arts Studio Theater in the Greensboro Cultural Center, located at 200 N. Davie St.