Friday, August 5, 2011

Gay History Becomes Visible At Last, And the Theater Leads the Way

Unnatural Acts -- Photo by Joan Marcus

Nothing has been more ignored in the teaching of history than the history of gay and lesbian individuals. As far as US public schools are concerned, a policy of “don’t ask; don’t tell” remains pretty much intact.

This may start to change, however, with the enactment last month of a California state law requiring public schools to teach gay and lesbian history. California is a big state, and its public schools spend a lot of money on textbooks and other educational materials. It will be interesting to watch as the curriculum unfolds.

In support of this effort, educators might do well to turn to the recent spate of plays steeped in various aspects of gay history—among them, The Temperamentals, The Pride, and the revivals of The Normal Heart and Angels in America, not to mention older plays such as The Laramie Project (first produced in 2000) and Bent (1979).

All of these plays have something of significance to say, and collectively they have the power to shed light on what has been covered by an invisibility cloak for far too long.

Two additions to the growing list are Unnatural Acts, based on the true story of a group of gay students who were driven out of Harvard University back in 1920, and A Strange and Separate People, about the crossed paths of homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism.

Both of these have just ended short runs, Unnatural Acts at the Classic Stage Company and A Strange and Separate People at Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre. Chances are, however, that both will see additional productions around the country, given their compelling topics.

Unnatural Acts is actually the second version of the story of Harvard’s “secret court,” convened following the suicide of one of the gay students. The first to hit the boards was Veritas, written by Stan Richardson, with a first production in 2007. I’m not sure of the details, but it seems that Mr. Richardson and Tony Speciale, the director of Unnatural Acts, were working together on the project but at some point decided to go their separate ways. In any event, the authorship of Unnatural Acts is credited to “members of the Plastic Theatre,” a loose-knit collaborative of artists headed up by Mr. Speciale. In the theater program, however, two individuals, Heather Denyer and Nick Norman (she is a dramturg, he an established playwright) are singled out as co-authors. (As it happens, I sat next to Mr. Norman’s father at the performance I attended, and he filled me in on some of the convoluted background.)

Surprisingly, for a play with a collective authorship, Unnatural Acts is quite cohesive and well-structured. If it is a tad melodramatic and “collegiate,” as The New York Times critic Ben Brantley put it in his review, it is appropriately so, for the play is both a theatrical retelling of a long-quashed historic event and the kind of cautionary tale that is likely to be performed in college towns across the country and perhaps read and studied in classes. There is no doubt where the play’s sympathies lie, but the fact is, the socio-political context would make for some serious analytic discussions in a political science class, a law class, a drama class, or a queer studies class.

The group of students who gathered in the rooms of one of their more flamboyant brethren were not terribly discrete in their behavior and, being mostly children of privilege, they took it for granted that Harvard would turn a blind eye at their lack of attention to their studies, their frequent and loud parties, and their illegal drinking (this was during Prohibition, after all). We learn, in passing, that at least some of the students were attending Harvard after leaving other colleges, under circumstances that we are left to surmise.

In point of fact, Harvard officials may very well have stayed out of it had it not been for the pressure put upon them by the brother of the young man who committed suicide. That the students were interrogated in secret is hardly a surprise; what would the wealthy alumni donors think if this “dirty laundry” were to be aired in public?

If there are truly shocking moments in the play, these occur through the depictions of the interrogations, in which the students were brought individually before a group of deans and pressed to answer the most intrusive of questions about their sexual practices. It is here where all of the other issues—academics, partying, drinking—become non-issues, and the focus is on the one thing that sets these students apart. The resulting denials, confessions, and betrayals, and the subsequent expulsion of most of the students involved, caused permanent damage, as we learn in an affecting epilogue based on research into the lives of those involved.

Any “docudrama” of this sort has the difficult task of balancing historic truth with dramatic truth. For the most part, Unnatural Acts succeeds quite well and leaves us much to ponder in both arenas. 

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'A Strange and Separate People' -- Photo by Michael Portantiere

Turning next to a more contemporary work, we have the less successful but potentially powerful drama, A Strange and Separate People, written by Jon Marans, who gave us the multi-award-winning The Temperamentals and who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Old Wicked Songs. It is because Marans is such a gifted playwright that I am hopeful he will come back to A Strange and Separate People and flesh it out.

As it stands, this is a two-character drama with three characters and a muddied script that takes on too many issues. Focus, Jon, focus!

Still, at its heart, it tells a most interesting story by crossing two lives—those of Jay, a closeted gay man who is an Orthodox Jew, and Stuart, an “out” gay man who is transitioning from being a casual Jew to Orthodoxy. In telling their story, Marans raises many intriguing questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality, a subject that previously saw the theatrical light of day last year with Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts, who juxtaposed homosexuality with conservative Christianity.

Marans sets A Strange and Separate People around religious rituals, Sabbath prayers at the home of Jay and his wife Phyllis, and services in the Orthodox Upper West Side synagogue that all three attend.

As the play currently stands, Phyllis has little to do beyond reacting to learning about her husband’s sexuality—so in order to build up her role, Marans has given the couple a child with autism, whose presence is heard and felt, if not seen. It’s too much for the play to work with; it either needs to be cut to a one-act or expanded into a deeper two-act.

I support the latter. I want to know more about Phyllis, the couple’s son, his caregiver, the unseen but noisy neighbor, the president of the congregation, and others whose presence could only serve to enrich the plot. I think of the wonderful ensemble piece that was The Temperamentals and can envision this play transforming into something of that ilk. Until that happens, however, I can only recommend A Strange and Separate People as an interesting work-in-progress.

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