Storyteller Jon Spelman’s “The Prostate Dialogues” isn’t exactly about having prostate cancer. The stage show, a work-in-development, focuses on what it’s like not to have prostate cancer anymore — and why that isn’t quite as rosy as it sounds.
Spelman’s diagnosis came in June 2009, when the Baltimore-based writer and performer underwent tests to figure out why he’d become so fatigued. Although the doctors never pinpointed the cause, they discovered the cancer, and Spelman opted for immediate surgery. When he woke up, he was attached to an enormous catheter, had no interest in sex with his wife and finally recognized how much one organ could mean to him.
Because of the prostate’s placement in the body, Spelman says, some degree of incontinence and erectile dysfunction is to be expected after surgery. But before going under the knife, he hadn’t prepared himself for the magnitude of potential problems. “Of course they mention [the aftereffects], but you don’t hear it,” he says. “So while my cancer seems to be fine, I have these other difficulties that men and women don’t know anything about.”
Spelman, 69, has found that three words inevitably come up when discussing the subject: “There’s prostate, which most of us didn’t understand before cancer. Cancer, which people don’t like to talk about. And penis.” Although he’s shared personal stuff onstage for 30-plus years, he recognizes this is taboo territory. But that’s why he refuses to shut up. “We all go to the bathroom and have sex,” he says.
Still, he’s concerned about tone. So he lightens the mood by recounting how Roman boys wore a bulla, a locket containing erect phallic objects. He tours through the strange treatments that have been used over the years for ED, including surgeries using a raccoon’s rib or monkey testicles.
For Spelman, this experience has forced him to face his mortality. “Even if you get off as easily as I did, it’s a slap in the face,” he says. With the performance, he aims to pack enough of a punch that the audience is inspired to get medical screenings. And even start talking to each other.
Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW; Tue., 7:30 p.m., Feb. 12 and 19, 5 p.m., tickets $10; 800-494-8497, Washingtondcjcc.org.