By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
After lots of work, Wright proudly turned in his work of art: the severed head of Medusa with snake-hair writhing, face contorted in fury. His teacher at Hyer Elementary School in University Park stared at it in horror. "Why, Douglas," she said. "It's so...imaginative." She suggested that perhaps it could be displayed another time and promptly put it away.
"I had lavished so much attention and care on the Medusa head," Wright says. He knew it would never get a place of honor on the bulletin board. But instead of being angry, he felt a secret thrill. His picture was so illicit, so terrifying, so forbidden that it had to be hidden.
Like his own rage.
Large and gangly, Wright felt the sting of playground taunts. Sissy. Queer. Homo. And the cruelest of all: Faggot. His size made him a lumbering target.
"I think it does damage you. When you are the subject of attack on the playground, you don't fight back, because you won't win," Wright says. "You're being labeled and condemned in a certain way. That calcifies over time into real fury."
He translated that rage onto the stage. At 43, he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Still big and a bit pudgy around the middle, Wright has graying hair and a goatee flecked with silver. Behind stylish spectacles, his face is soft, his smile a bit tentative. It's hard to imagine him ever playing kickball.
Wright's parents never broached the subject of his sexuality. Neither did Wright. Popular with adults if not his peers, Wright thrived at school by seeking solace from teachers and making good grades. He took theater classes and performed in plays. "University Park was a very privileged place to grow up," Wright says. "There was a high premium placed on education. A lot of professors at SMU lived in the neighborhood. There was a great teaching staff at school. In that respect I was extremely fortunate."
Though his father is a securities lawyer and his mother a homemaker, the Wrights in some ways didn't fit into the Park Cities "bubble." After attending church at Highland Park Presbyterian, his parents became disenchanted with its conservative direction and found a small congregation called the Community of Reconciliation, a funky house church with a '70s vibe. Everyone sat around on beanbags, strummed guitars and talked about faith. Religious neighbors who feared for their salvation slipped gospel tracts under the Wrights' door.
But beneath the surface religiosity and conformity of the Park Cities, Wright sensed a simmering cauldron. "I think any kind of stringent conformity breeds perversity," Wright says. "As a kid growing up there, I had playmates whose parents had drug problems or secret closeted sexual lives or were always on the brink of scandal. I remember the Cullen Davis trial. A couple of teachers lost their jobs because of sex scandals with students. That was fascinating to me as a kid."
He was also fascinated by The Twilight Zone, Roald Dahl's books and cartoons by Charles Addams, whatever was weird and creepy and off-kilter. That fascination would serve Wright well. As a playwright, his work has focused on disgusting, closeted or contemptible people. His play and film Quills dealt with the aristocratic pornographer Marquis de Sade and featured obscenity, scatology, dismemberment, desecration and murder. Wright received his Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for I Am My Own Wife, the story of a transsexual antiques dealer in East Germany who ran a gay cabaret in her basement and allowed sexual trysts of all kinds in the attic. She also turned out to be an informant for the Stasi, the secret police, who may have betrayed a close friend.
Grey Gardens, his most mainstream work to date, opened November 2 on Broadway. A musical, it's based on the true story of two eccentric women born into America's aristocracy who ended up living in squalor, sharing a once-elegant mansion with 52 cats. "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale was the aunt of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and "Little Edie" was the future First Lady's cousin. Entertaining, funny, touching and ultimately tragic, Grey Gardens could have taken place in Highland Park with nary a rewrite.
"Everything I know about perversity," Wright says, "I learned in the Park Cities."
In many ways, the evolution of his writing has mirrored an evolution in Wright's personal life. From a self-loathing teenager struggling with his sexuality to a playwright capable of finding humanity in the most monstrous people, Wright has crafted two female characters who could launch him into the ranks of marquee playwrights who not only win Tonys but see their work produced all over the world.