Rail Riders

They rode the rails, panhandled dinners and called no man boss. Indeed, American hoboes of the 1930s lived lives of seemingly mythical proportions. They acted out our collective wanderlust and were wholly independent of nagging spouses, whining children and backbreaking work. It's surprising that not more has been written about this odd moment in American history. But Clint Jefferies's The Jocker, currently at The Little Room Downstairs (the only theater in town devoted exclusively to gay-themed plays), gives us an interesting and even surprising take on these vagabonds and their complicated lives.

The play opens on Nat (Ryan Heitzman) and Biloxi Billy (Andrew Dawson), two tramps who've just jumped off a moving train and landed outside a mining town somewhere in the great Southwest. There's temporary work nearby, and lots of men will be arriving soon -- lots of men and lots of cash for paychecks. And Biloxi Billy is the sort of bad guy who doesn't work when he can steal.

But Billy's scheming is only part of this unusual tale. At its heart, this play is about the way hoboes forged relationships with one another and the rules they invented to regulate their nomadic community. At first sight, Dawson's Billy is the older, paternal type. Tall, gray and tightly wound, he's a man who wants things taken care of. Nat -- he's only 14 -- is a hard-bitten orphan who ran away from schools and homes. He has made Billy his jocker, a man who takes on the responsibility of raising a boy in exchange for sex from the youth. It's a kind of sacred relationship, as we are repeatedly told throughout the play: "No man gets between a jocker and his boy."

This is true even when the jocker is like Billy, horribly cruel and hateful. He beats Nat for any mistake and rapes him in the night only to laugh about it in the morning. But Heitzman's Nat is no innocent, even if he is small and pale and wispy-haired. He wants out of this relationship. When he meets up with two other men, Shakespeare (Christopher Patton) and Bama Boy (R.J. Soule), Nat starts figuring a way out of the situation that he is locked into by the rules of the road. The road, it turns out, has its own kind of boundaries.

Shakespeare and Bama Boy are lovers looking for work. Unlike Billy and Nat, Shakespeare and Bama are both grown and on equal footing. They are together for companionship as much as sex. Young Nat wants to be a part of that. He starts worming his way into Bama's affection, tending Bama's wounds, rubbing his back, confiding in him. We find out that Bama had a jocker once too. Although he sees Nat's sorry situation, he won't do anything about it, because "no man gets between a jocker and his boy."

One more couple appears. Lucky (Joe Okonkwo), a black male prostitute who makes his living following groups of itinerant workers, hooks up with Dodger (Paul Nicely), a lonely vagabond with a wife somewhere back east. Through the lives of these six men we learn a history that has long been repressed.

What is most impressive about The Jocker is its subject matter. The play gives voice to a lost part of American culture. For all the romanticizing of the hoboes of the '30s, little has been written about the gay subculture of this unique community. And in spite of all the cliched names and ideas and the sometimes dreadfully lame dialogue in this script -- an embittered Nat spits out the fact: "One of the first bastards to spread my ass was a preacher" -- the play works. By the second act it somehow becomes absolutely engrossing.

The power of this little play is due in part to Paul Nicely's presence. Nicely, with boy-next-door good looks, brings a wonderful intimacy and vulnerability to the role of Dodger, the hapless, lonesome wanderer. The Little Room is a postage stamp-sized theater without much walking-around space, so actors spend a lot of time seated. Nicely is riveting and believable in these scenes where he's given no more business than just sitting and talking.

The rest of the players don't bring that depth or nuance to the stage, but they manage to bring a very real seriousness and urgency to the final scenes of doom and death. Also, David Gipson's lighting adds a great deal of tension to the scenes; the mood he's able to cast is doubly impressive given the shallowness of the stage.

Since this country began, "Go west young man" has been an American mantra fueling our imaginations about freedom and the unencumbered vagabond. The Jocker works hard to dismantle this myth. It seems love brings a kind of freedom that the road can only promise.

The Jocker runs through February 27 at The Little Room Downstairs, 2326 Bissonnet, (713)523-0791. $10-$20.


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