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Dramatists are exploring LGBTQ life in uncharted ways
To judge only from Broadway, New York theatre is experiencing a Renaissance of old gay plays, with starry revivals of three landmark dramas that are now period pieces: The Boys in the Band from the '60s, the soon-to-open Torch Song from the '80s and Angels in America from the '90s.
But Pride Month Off-Broadway tells a much broader story.
"My latest play is the most up-front gay play I've ever written -- maybe there's something in the air," says Jordan Harrison about Log Cabin, currently running at Playwrights Horizons. It is one of a raft of new shows that feature LGTBQ characters and issues in ways that would have been almost inconceivable even a short while ago.
Teresa Lotz's She Calls Me Firefly at Soho Playhouse focuses on a young man in a gay bar in Kentucky facing up to his demons but, unlike gay plays past, his homosexuality has nothing to do with his problems. Skintight by Joshua Harmon (Broadway's Significant Other) at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, stars Idina Menzel as a divorcée who embraces her out son but is annoyed that her famous fashion designer father is dating a much younger man. LGBTQ shows have been a staple of Off-Off Broadway since its inception a half century ago, and there are three OOB queer arts fests taking place this summer: Dixon Place's 27th annual HOT! Festival, the 16th annual Fresh Fruit Festival at the Wild Project and the fourth annual Queerly at the Kraine Theater. All feature eclectic offerings from diverse performers who often have intersectional identities.
"I think that the new wave of LGBTQ shows are expanding our stories to show more nuance within the community," says Qwalee Summers, whose play Le Blanc, about the rise of a foster kid in New York's black queer ballroom scene, opens this week at The PIT.
"I would classify shows like The Boys in the Band as gay plays, but now our modern sensibility has shifted from gay to queer culture," adds S. Asher Gelman, who penned Afterglow about a married gay couple who invite a third man into their relationship. The show was supposed to have a two-month run at the Davenport Theatre; last week it celebrated its one-year anniversary. According to Gelman, Afterglow is a "queer" play, not a gay one, because, "I consider a gay play as having a checklist: Someone dying of HIV/AIDS; someone dealing with coming out; someone dealing with discrimination or gay bashing," he explains. "Those stories have been told to death. I do not think we need to be hampered by the concerns of previous generations. We need to tell stories that aren't predicated on our otherness."
Harrison's Log Cabin reflects this contemporary sensibility by exploring the evolution of LGBTQ otherness. It tells the story of two married interracial couples -- a pair of gay men and their two lesbian pals -- and their struggle to accept a mutual friend who is a transgender man.
The idea for the play began, Harrison says, when he started hearing the way his gay and lesbian friends talked about transgender rights. "A couple of years ago I felt dizzy about how rapidly my rights had progressed," he says. "Growing up, I never imagined myself being married; by 2010, my boyfriend and I were discussing it." By 2013 they had done it, and by 2015 gay marriage was legal throughout the U.S.
"It was exhilarating," Harrison says, "but I started to observe the growing pains of gay assimilation." Set between 2012 and 2016, Log Cabin opens with Ezra (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family fame), who's gay, triumphantly celebrating the right to marry. Over the course of the play, however, he starts feeling like an oppressor. "It's an unfortunate feature of human nature that we often lose our understanding of marginalized groups once we become less marginalized ourselves," Harrison says.
Although Harrison and his peers are examining LGBTQ life through a modern-day lens, they've certainly been influenced by the gay plays that came before. Harrison first saw the movie version of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song, about the life and loves of '70s drag queen Arnold Beckoff, while living in his hometown of Bainbridge Island near Seattle. Harrison was still in the closet, and it was part of his hunt for cultural moments that made him feel less alone.
Harrison didn't learn about The Boys in the Band, about a group of gay men at a birthday party that descends into self-loathing, until he was at Stanford University, where he came out freshman year. He saw a clip from the 1970 movie version in The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about the depiction of homosexuality in Hollywood. "It seemed landmark but grotesque, and put me off from seeing the play for a decade," Harrison says. When he did, he acknowledged "the humanity and brilliance of this group of people."
And the first time Harrison saw Angels in America, Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic set during the AIDS crisis, he was sitting uncomfortably between his grandparents, who had taken him to see the hot new show without knowing what it was about. Of the three landmark works, Harrison says Angels has influenced him most. "I aspired to be as fast and witty and verbose and cutting as Belize and Prior," he says of two of its characters. He also notes that all 15 of his plays (including Marjorie Prime, Maple and Vine and The Amateurs) "have at least one gay character, whether or not the other characters know they're gay."
Harrison speculates that the abundance of LGBTQ shows on New York stages this summer is spurred, in part, by the community's hard-won rights being under threat. He recently realized that Log Cabin has itself become a period piece, because the "too comfortable" people in it who started to take their rights for granted have begun to feel uneasy since the 2016 presidential election. The audience seems to feel that way, too. When one of the characters toasts "to the future" of LGBTQ rights, the playwright has heard audible groans, he suspects because that future now seems so uncertain. "It was not the reaction I was expecting when I wrote it."