I learned a lot from Jon Spelman’s new monologue The Prostate Dialogues. I learned, for example, that prostate glands produce the inert component of semen, which is why all male mammals have them. I learned that a sperm whale’s prostate gland is the size of a watermelon. I learned that BPE stands for Benign Prostate Enlargement, a condition which is common in older men, the learning of which made me wonder how old “older” is.
At some point in all that learning, I wondered whether Spelman’s performance qualified as community service: there were a lot of prostates in the audience at Theater J Sunday night, and probably several empty spaces from which prostates had been surgically extracted. Which group sat closer to the edge of their seat, I wonder: the men who had already taken the journey Spelman was recounting, or the ones who were about to?
The Prostate Dialogues seems to be the story of Spelman’s encounter with prostate cancer. The details are commonplace — I’ve read that every man who lives long enough will get it — but they’re not common conversation, which is why I sat on the edge of my seat: I’d never heard somebody talk about the invasion of his reproductive organs with such precision or such grace.
Several episodes in the story showcased the power of precision and grace in the narrative art. Take, for example, the tale of cystoscopy: in hopes of discovering why he had to pee so often — or discovering some reason other than the obvious one — Spelman submitted to a number of tests, including cystoscopy, which is an inspection of the bladder and urethra via fiber-optic cables that travel the length of the penis (inside) and barge through the sphincter that’s supposed to open only when a fellow wants it to. This procedure is carried out in assembly-line fashion, on eight or nine men at a time, most of whom have reached the age when they have to pee more often than they’d like. They lie on gurneys, Spelman says, naked from the waist down, while two young women disinfect their penises with antiseptic gel.
As Spelman describes that experience, adopting the persona of one of the nurses so he can show what she was doing with her hands while she chatted up her friend until she realized that the penis she was disinfecting belonged to Jon Spelman, famous story-teller, and called her friend’s attention to that fact, I jumped from imagining how it might feel to be inspected with a fiber-optic cable to imagining how it might feel to be disinfected by a pretty nurse.
“Why are you letting her do that?” I practically shouted. “Just sit up and tell her that you can disinfect yourself! That’s what I’m going to do when I have my cystoscopy.”
It was a moment of total identification, in other words, a moment in which Spelman and I merged —me and Spelman and a couple hundred other guys. It takes a lot of skill to eliminate the boundaries between so many individuals.
That’s why I say this monologue seems to be the story of Spelman’s encounter with prostate cancer. Maybe I should italicize the word ‘story’ here instead of the word ‘seems’, or italicize both to underscore the fact that every story is a seeming, artfully designed.
The question of seeming is especially important here because a lot of the play’s power comes from my hope that when my time comes I might endure the indignities of cystoscopy and colonoscopy and incontinence and disinfection with as much courage and grace as Spelman’s showing here — from my confusing story with reality, in other words. If he can go through all that and come out the other side not just alive but trim and fit and strong, with all his faculties in tact, both physical and mental — if life on the other side of prostate cancer looks like that and sounds like that and has the wherewithal to talk about its penis and its testicles and its fear of erectile disfunction, or its avoidance of that fate, then I can go through all that too, and not just survive but actually flourish, like Spelman did.
THE PROSTATE DIALOGUES
Closes June 29, 2014
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Or did he? It’s clear that he’s not just telling us what happened to him: he’s performing a dramatic monologue, directed by Jerry Whiddon, with lighting designed by Garth Dolan and a soundtrack composed by Matthew Nielson. “This is a work of creative nonfiction,” a line in the playbill stipulates. Which means that it isn’t a recounting of events that actually happened but rather a series of particular details chosen and crafted — which is to say created, not experienced — for artistic effect. Every narrative is.
One of the things I liked best about The Prostate Dialogues is the way it reminds us that every story we tell is invented — the story of the day I won the race, the story of my first date with my wife, the story of the way I handled prostate cancer. Those stories shape reality at least as much as reality shapes them. I’d be willing to bet, in fact, that Spelman tells this story not because it happened this way, but so that he can think of it this way. And so that I can too.
I’d like to thank him for that.
The Prostate Dialogues by Jon Spelman . Directed by Jerry Whiddon . Featuring Jon Spelman . Lighting by Garth Dolan. Sound by Matthew M. Nielson. Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Mark Dewey.