“I was born and raised in Hawaii to Grandparents who travelled the world sharing Polynesian music and dance in Vaudeville and a dad who was an artist and well-known knife dancer for luaus at Waikiki hotels. Mom was a psychiatric specialist and RN. I grew up an entertainer, fell in love with stage and film, studied theater, where all my slapstick instincts were dismantled to be replaced by Mr. Stanislavski to make me a “serious artist,” Arts journeyman, Joe Moe, said in one breath. All this – in his DNA – has given Joe the superpower of being a brilliant storyteller. Ironically, it also turned his curiousity in the arts into something herculean, as he also worked in Makeup, Special FX, Production design, Music, and Performance, but it was the pen that became his sword of choice. “It was the one thing I could start and finish alone,” he said with an exuberance that has become his trademark. “I wrote prose and lyrics, drifted into screenwriting (Ray Bradbury said, “Oh, Joe! You better have no ego. Nobody will know your name”), light journalism, published short stories, then returned to the stage writing books for musicals and finally, dramas,” which is where our story of the storyteller begins.
We spoke with Joe about his new play, currently in rehearsal for its New York premiere, DENY WE WERE.
His play deals with an often obscured section of the LGBTQ community.
It’s all LA sunshine and fun until a handsome teenage inquisitor shows up with a chip on his shoulder. When precocious 17-year old Jonah McCabe bunks with adopted “Guncle” Dean Vela, raging hormones take a backseat to burning resentment of his controlling, ex-model dad, Jimmy, and a sneaking suspicion Uncle Dean and dad have been “more than just friends.” Dean deflects. Jonah’s mom, Carrie, vents her issues with partner Jimmy, who she supports financially and who, in return, enjoys it. Who is this gorgeous villain that has everyone eating off of his abs? When Jimmy finally appears in the charismatic flesh, thirsty secrets unravel in the narcissistic centrifuge that spins around an unsqueezable love-sponge. Desire and deceit, all suspended in a soap bubble of wicked humor.
What was the inspiration for the play?
Reactionism. But until “Deny We Were,” I wrote from outside myself. I was a sculptor working from the surface inward, keeping my distance. With Deny We Were, I reverse-engineered my process. I built the internal armature and heaped guts and clay on it. I had written the premise as a therapy for 20-years of obsession over a “best friend” whose disorienting ebb and flow of seduction and detachment had been the perfect drug to keep me coming back for two decades. When this friend shockingly kicked me to the curb last year, rubbing salt into my abandonment issues on the way out, it freed me to share the story I’d set down. Not as retribution, but as an exploration of my enabling and acceptance of such emotional negligence. Ha! Even now I’m afraid to use the word “malice!”
Writers are often told to write what they know. What’s inside of this play that speaks about YOU?
The play asks critical questions I haven’t been able to answer to repair myself. Why do we love people who are incapable of returning the favor? Once we’ve dared to tell the truth of our desires, and the answer comes back, “no,” why do we run at the same wall, at a different angle, over and over, knowing we’ll just break different body parts? Once we’re in the groove of denial, deceit, and manipulation, what and who are we willing to sacrifice for the impossible love we’re chasing?
You have some great credentials. What or when was the moment you decided to be a playwright?
The moment? Probably as a kid in the 70’s when ACT came through Hawaii performing Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” It was macabre, exotic (well, the Midwest was exotic to this island kid) and had all of my favorite flavors in it! I was creeped-out and inspired. I love the living, breathing theater. Where else is there such an active dialogue between artist and audience? The quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” is attributed to DaVinci. I relate to that. I work and rework until a draft is slapped out of my hands. I submitted the current draft of the play, two drafts short of my desired rewrites. But I know I would have just been polishing the polish. My high school art teacher, Jean Noguchi’s quote becomes apt at this point, “Keep it fresh, don’t overwork it, don’t get muddy.”
What happens with this play from here?
This festival will tell me how far I have to go in refining it. To me a play is like a dramaturgical crème brûlée. A cheesy metaphor, but I like cheese and I LOVE crème brûlée! There’s a sweet seductive, sugar crust of expectation that must seduce an audience into putting their spoon through it. Once they do, they commit themselves to whatever they find beneath it. Custard or crap. Does the audience leave having experienced an enlightening, nuanced confection, or have they only learned they wish they never picked up a spoon? I feel responsible for the success or failure of that experience. For me, that is where entertainment meets storytelling. I feel obligated as a good citizen of the universe to reveal something, anything, that could help another earthling avoid some heartache (getting or giving it), or at least understand it a bit more? This festival will tell me if I’ve come anywhere near accomplishing that, or how I might get there.
Why Fresh Fruit Festival?
My good friend Jay Michaels made the introduction, so I was starting from a place of trust. I’d done a few Zoom readings and a couple of acting turns with FFF last year during the pandemic. Coming from Asian Pacific culture, I do business by relationship. I liked the vision and process of the organization. I appreciated and respected the people running the show. The legacy and track record of FFF and their stated goals sealed it for me. I didn’t even bother submitting the play to anyone else.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing a one act musical with prolific composer/lyricist Brian Woodbury, who I’ve collaborated with for over 30+ years. It’s a behind-the-scenes, Hollywood golden age, moviestar comedy with enough charm songs, beautiful ballads and theatrical one-upmanship to make a Barrymore of Carradine cringe. Many of my most discriminating friends have said they think its the best thing I’ve written so far. To me, it’s just the last thing I’ve written so far.
“Deny We Were” by Joe Moe
Directed by Marcus Gualberto
Produced by Jay Michaels in association with Fresh Fruit Festival
Ida Nau-DeLuke, executive producer
Production Design by John Gross
Lighting Design by Maarten Cornelis with Adam Hamdy
Wednesday 5/11 at 6:00 pm
Friday 5/13 at 8:00 pm
Saturday 5/14 at 5:00 pm
at The WILD PROJECT, 195 East 3rd Street, NYC
For further info: freshfruitfestival.com