Baltimore storyteller Jon Spelman makes debut performance of 'Prostate Dialogues'

Monologue combines story about the performer's battle with prostate cancer with reflections on his own mortality

  • riter/performer Jon Spelman will premiere "The Prostate Dialogues and Tales of the Tellywacker" at the Creative Alliance .
riter/performer Jon Spelman will premiere "The Prostate… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 15, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

After Jon Spelman got the bad news, he found himself thinking often and at odd moments about "Moby-Dick."

Perhaps that's because the behemoth that was attacking the Baltimore storyteller was as submerged, unreasoning and unpredictable as any great white whale, and every bit as ferocious.

Spelman knew that like Captain Ahab, the anti-hero of Herman Melville's novel, he would have to hunt his hunter.

He armed himself not just with doctors and surgery and cancer-fighting drugs, but with wit, bravery and a determination to look straight at his own death — whenever it might come.

The result is a monologue called "The Prostate Dialogues and Tales of the Tellywacker," which the 70-year-old Spelman not only wrote but also performs. The play is receiving its world premiere March 22 at the Creative Alliance.

"This was a piece that I might never have done if I still lived in Washington," says Spelman, who moved to Fells Point five years ago with his wife, choreographer Liz Lerman.

"I might not have done it if I'd lived in any other neighborhood. I've heard Baltimore described as more 'real' than Washington in some ways. It's maybe less sophisticated, but rawer and more intimate."

Spelman has been working on the monologue off and on since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009. A staged reading was held last year at Washington's Theatre J.

Ari Roth, the troupe's artistic director, describes the show as "a truly important exploration of masculinity, mortality, dying and the age-old battle with disease."

"And," Roth adds, "it's very funny."

The first act tracks the disease's progress and Spelman's successful surgery; his doctors now believe he is cancer-free. Audience members eavesdrop on the members of a cancer support group. They also meet the author's neighbors, with whom he discusses his illness while sitting on his front steps.

In the second act, the storyteller explores what literally and figuratively is foreign terrain. A memorable hike with his grown daughter across Spain's El Camino de Santiago sparks the author's recollections of a passage from "Moby-Dick," his encounter with a recalcitrant bull, and what both came to symbolize for Spelman about his male identity.

Washington-area director Jerry Whiddon was so intrigued by "The Prostate Dialogues" that he's donating his services to get the monologue in shape for public performances.

"I thought his play was gutsy," Whiddon says. "I'd never read anything like it. How often do you hear people talk — really talk — about their prostates?"

That kind of frankness isn't uncommon among women. Way back in 1996, Eve Ensler wrote "The Vagina Monologues" (Spelman's play is a riff off that title). Five years later, Jeanie Linders staged "Menopause: the Musical." Both works combine humor with social commentary, are performed today and continue to draw audiences.

But plays about male reproductive health? Not so much.

"If anyone other than Jon has written one," Whiddon says, "I've never heard of it."

He acknowledges that the subject could be discomfiting.

"I assume the topic could be a turnoff for some people," Whiddon says.

"But once you get past that, his play is surprising and touching and funny and ultimately celebratory. It's about the awareness of being alive and all that entails. I think it connects to everyone — men and women — who've ever thought about their own mortality."

Spelman takes pains to introduce the more graphic material gradually.

"I ease into it in a way that makes people feel safe," he says.

"I start out by talking about a familiar experience that most men have had, of getting hit in the testicles with a baseball when I was 9 years old."

He then reveals his family's word — "tellywacker" — for the male sex organ, and muses humorously about the term's linguistic origins.

"By that time," Spelman says, "I've sort of established that I have that equipment, everybody knows that I have that equipment, and we can face it together as adults."

Susan Gordon is a psychiatric social worker by profession and a storyteller by avocation who has seen two workshop performances of "The Prostate Dialogues."

"I was amazed and touched at Jon's bravery, honesty and his willingness to laugh while exploring a topic so sensitive that few men or women are comfortable discussing it," Gordon says. "I wanted to say to my women friends, 'Pull up a chair; listen to what happens to our men. Understand.' "

Given that kind of response, it's possible to imagine the playwright as a true "Spell Man." For more than three decades, the performer has been the go-to tale-teller in the Baltimore and Washington area.

Spelman's skill has been noted by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. The latter praised him in a 1995 review as "a superb storyteller" with "presence, wit, timing and narrative creativity."

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