Just two days before Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter of New Orleans shuttered its doors in the face of the Omicron surge, the historic theatre was filled with 35 or so hearty souls braving exposure to the new variant to memorialize James H. O’Quinn, American Theatre’s founding editor, who had died on Oct. 11, 2021. Friends, lovers, collaborators, and co-workers (some in overlapping categories) traveled from Massachusetts, Washington state, and New York City to eulogize an icon some suggested was now creatively conspiring with departed Louisiana theatre greats John O’Neal, Adella Gautier and Carol Sutton.
O’Quinn’s death came after a brutal year of heart attack, stroke, and complications, which landed him in multiple ICU hospital beds on crowded wards where Richard Fumosa, his partner of 40 years and husband of almost seven, told the gathering they’d found among the drained and exhausted staff “no heroes.” Bills were high, money tight, and Fumosa was struggling himself with injuries from a fall after Hurricane Ida and a botched rotator cuff surgery. Even for a man who’d successfully navigated a tempestuous publishing career, working for a time as Harold Bloom’s editorial assistant and editing Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell (which he quipped was hell), Fumosa was tested to the limits of his capacity.
So when he walked their dog across the 100-year-old stage at Le Petit to distract himself from his solitary task of welcoming mourners and offering prodigious public thanks to the angels who’d arranged rides to the hospital, meals, dog-walking assistance, and ultimately a GoFundMe, it was both completely charming and deeply felt. Passing under the purple and magenta klieg lights with Paderewski, their papillon, it was plain to see that though two months had passed since he’d lost O’Quinn, the grief was still upon him. (He later described Jim’s last moments as “shocking. His room was completely lit and he was surrounded by doctors, and I just knew something was terribly wrong. It was 3 in the morning, they sent me back to the waiting room, and I was just aghast. I couldn’t see his body, just all this intense light.”) But for everyone’s sake, his own included, Richard was doing his best to wear the emotion of the day lightly. He wasn’t jokey but genuinely funny, and, at least inside the theatre, the chill of the gray, blustery December day was soon warmed by laughter.
“We met because we had the same ex-partner, and we were both treated so badly by this ex-partner that after a number of years we became friends,” he deadpanned to the gathering. And with a kind of candor usually reserved for close family, he emphatically told us, “Jim was much more of a misanthrope than any of you knew. He didn’t love everything or everybody. He hated country music!” He held a bedrock respect for O’Quinn’s work ethic from their earliest days together— “When he was a superintendent in our building he was the best super that ever was!”—and praised him as “open-minded.” (Later, O’Quinn’s daughter Jamey told me that if she’d spoken at the service she would’ve uttered those exact words. “He taught me to look past the mainstream concepts, to have an open mind, to accept everyone. And not just by example, but consciously, and all the time.”) Fumosa then shared an intimate confidence, which sounded not at all cranky, only shyly true: “I sometimes feel like his shadow is a bit over me. And he wouldn’t want that.”
With that, the hardest part was over, and Richard could take his place in the house next to Jamey, and, holding Paderewski, surrounded by friends who’d changed seats to cover them with closeness, received an avalanche of love and respect spanning decades, geographies, and iterations of self. The outpouring commenced with astonishing words written by O’Quinn himself, words that chronicled the trippy interior journey he’d taken while in the grips of a hallucination brought on by cardiac arrest, and the revelations it inspired in him.
In a plain white blouse tucked into white muslin slacks, gold hoop earrings, and open-toed sandals, Kathy Randels appeared a vision of feminine spirit and loving-kindness as she mellifluously read his fabulist prose. His tale was of a benevolent visitation from a delicate, bejeweled fairy who whispered soothingly in his ear: “Don’t breathe the oxygen. I’m taking care of the oxygen. You can breathe other things.”
Randels and O’Quinn shared a Louisiana Southern Baptist upbringing, and though they’d escaped its strictures through the portal of theatre, they both had an abiding reverence for their old hymnal. Eyelids closed, lithe body swaying, dipping at the knees, harmonizing on the sliding, swelling chorus, Randels imbued Neil Young’s very secular “Harvest Moon” with a sense of the sacred as she sang to “Brother Jim,” “I’m still in love with you / I want to see you dance again.”
American Theatre publisher Terry Nemeth’s affectionately jovial recollections had O’Quinn not quite dancing, but most definitely traveling through space in sensorially activated motion, including “trips downtown to our printer Cosmos to select paper stock, which was a glorious Mohawk matte,” or criss-crossing Princeton’s campus, sharing a joint as they debriefed from a TCG conference presentation.
“There was always a moment when Jim and I would be walking back from some event or another when Jim would say to me, ‘Do you want a hit?’ I would say sure, and we would slowly walk back to wherever we were supposed to be and talk about what we had done, and what was next.”
There was always a next, and another next, right up until the end.
Laura Hope lauded O’Quinn as a “big dreamer” who was “cheerfully relentless.” She said he’d envisioned New Orleans hosting an international puppet festival during Mardi Gras, and he wanted to establish an artists’ retreat/performance venue on his family’s farmland in central Louisiana. But the Double Edge-inspired rural theatre dream died on the thorny vine of deference to his far more socially conservative siblings. Jamey told me that even with all his worldliness, her dad was still a wide-eyed Southern boy. “He wanted to bring them Shakespeare, he wanted to change their lives.” (But change is not a widely valued currency in Colfax, La., where until May 2021 a placard in front of the courthouse commemorating a bloody Reconstruction-era massacre bore the distressing message: “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Just blocks away an obelisk honoring the three white men who died “fighting for white supremacy” still towers above the other monuments in the graveyard.)
There was one dream that did come true, but almost didn’t. Hope explained that she was collaborating with O’Quinn on workshopping Virtuoso, a musical about composer Paderewski. But two weeks before the scheduled public performance they hadn’t yet cast it. She phoned O’Quinn to rouse them both, saying something like, “We can’t let this opportunity go by, Jim.” To which he answered, “Darn right, we’re going to do this if it kills both of us!” It landed as a laugh line, but also as a reminder that for O’Quinn being supportive was an activated state that sometimes called for extraordinary exertion. “Jim was one of those people if he believed in you he told you so,” Hope told the gathering, “and he tried to find opportunities to push you forward.”
A visibly moved Todd London rose to claim O’Quinn as his best friend in life, ascending to the proscenium to make the loss, which he called “seismic,” more bearable by sharing its particular contours. In London’s vivacious and provocative eulogy, O’Quinn’s verve became vividly and sassily animate, especially in this exegesis of a seemingly goofy vignette about O’Quinn making up silly songs about his co-workers:
My favorite Jim jingle made use of then-young Daniel Swee, who oversaw national casting when TCG still offered it. Jim chirped out the theme to the movie Born Free, which will be familiar to those of you alive and awake in the sixties. But instead of singing, “Born Free, and life is worth living,” he sang, “Dan Swee, and life is worth living.”
It worked on so many levels. Clearly, Jim found Dan adorable, so he celebrated that. It also announced who Jim was, as he trumpeted the office-cubicle-musical-inspiring, life-giving joy he got from being around people he liked. And then there’s the original lyric, which in the film refers to a lion cub, raised in domesticated captivity and released into the wild. Perhaps like Jim himself. I didn’t know Jim as a kid, but I’ve never been able to imagine him other than as a perfect miniature of the man he so indelibly became. Was Jim “born free, as free as the wind blows,” or did he free himself, once he was released into the wilds of the theater or the Marengo Street commune or New York City? He was a product of liberation days, but was he already liberated? Was he “out” before he came out? Before anybody came out?
MK Wegmann has known Jim O’Quinn so long she remembers when he was playing piano at a midnight gig at a bar on Bourbon Street for a show called Nobody Likes a Smart Ass. Their friendship goes back even further to 1971, when as a cub reporter for The DeQuincy Journal he reviewed a controversial production she’d worked on of Marat/Sade at the Marigny Opera House. She asked him not to mention her in the paper so she wouldn’t lose her teaching assistantship at University of New Orleans where there were rules against such things, and he agreed. Around 1979 it was her pleasure to hire him (and 13 other eligible artists funded through a CETA grant, a federal jobs program she remembers wistfully) at Contemporary Arts Center, which she’d founded “so artists would always have a place to do their work.” He became their first public relations director, and it hurt to see him go.
“I always considered it, and still do, a failure when artists have to leave New Orleans to make a living elsewhere,” Wegmann said at Le Petit. But she credited Jim with keeping the connection with New Orleans strong throughout the years, always training an eye on their audacious if remote theatre scene, and bringing them into the national conversation when it made sense.
“I’ll always remember Jim for his enthusiasm, optimism and his support for those who do the work,” she said. “I was so happy when he came back.”
Frances Madeson (she/her) is a writer based in central Louisiana who focuses on liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. A contributor to American Theatre, her recent theatre writing also appears in Scalawag, Bayou Brief, and The Progressive.
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