The Normal Art: Reflecting on the Revolution—and Eventual Sublimation—of Gay Theater in D.C.
“Just imagine this world without queens in it,” shudders cross-dressing New Orleans decorator Candy Delaney in a 1957 opus by Tennessee Williams.
“It would be absolutely barbaric.”
Williams penned those lines when he was Broadway’s hottest playwright—sometime between the premieres of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth—but Candy didn’t get to utter them on a public stage until 2004, when the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre Company jointly rescued And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens… from the closet of Williams’ unproduced works.
In that interim, the world had changed. By 2004, D.C. not only had out gay artistic directors at many of its most prestigious institutions (Arena Stage’s Molly Smith, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, and Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer, among others), it had a theater company exclusively devoted to the LGBT experience. The path from closet to corridors of power to a dedicated company hadn’t been smooth—marked by the tragedy of HIV and controversies over approach from those who believed “queer theater” could mean more than a motley collection of gay plays and gay artists. Nor would the result be cause for exultation (the dedicated company didn’t survive). But few could have foreseen a half-century ago the revolution that was coming.
In fact, it’s hard now to say how a buttoned-down 1950s audience might have reacted had it been able to witness Candy coming on to, and then getting beaten up by, a straight sailor. That era’s notion of a boundary-pushing homosexual play was Tea & Sympathy (a pre-Broadway attraction at the National Theatre), with its story of a prep school boy accused falsely of being gay. Or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also at the National, the week after ending its Broadway run), in which the leading man drinks himself into a stupor because his gay friend committed suicide. Actual gay characters on stage—not so much.
Which explains why Mart Crowley’s bitchy tragicomedy The Boys in the Band caused such a sensation at its off-Broadway premiere in 1968. Fourteen months before the Stonewall riots, here was a veritable riot of queens—stereotypes yes, but funny, shrieking, smart, outrageous, flamboyant, and unapologetically out of the closet in front of a paying audience.
Two days after Stonewall, when Boys in the Band opened its D.C. engagement (by then dogged by accusations of “Auntie-Tom-ism” for its depiction of self-loathing homosexuals) it was part of a veritable groundswell of gay plays. A lesbian drama, The Killing of Sister George, had played D.C. just a few months earlier, heading what would become a parade of star-studdedly accessible gay theater that included the British drama Butley and Terrence McNally’s bath-house farce The Ritz.
Arena Stage got local nonprofits into the act in the early 1970s with Lorraine Hansberry’s Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. And because the nascent queer theater movement—which was giving birth elsewhere to the likes of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros—more or less coincided with the start of D.C.’s small-theater movement, it seemed natural when, say, Back Alley Theater staged the Leopold and Loeb drama Compulsion, or Horizons Theatre prominently featured lesbian characters. Source Theater, just a few blocks from the gay bars and bookstores then dotting the Dupont Circle area, actively commissioned original queer plays, mounted the first area production of the gay holocaust drama Bent, and hosted the future drag star Charles Busch on numerous occasions.
A few years later, AIDS changed the theatrical agenda. With performers and designers among those falling ill, and TV and film unwilling to touch what was then known as “the gay plague,” theater began issuing calls to action and leapt to the task of keeping audiences informed. For a time, attending a gay play was not unlike getting briefings from the front in a war. As Is opened at Studio Theatre barely 15 months after the Broadway production closed in a version that had required numerous revisions by playwright William M. Hoffman to reflect changes in what was known about AIDS transmission and drug therapies. Which is not to suggest that all was grim on local stages during this period. Just weeks later, the homegrown A Dance Against Darkness: Living with AIDS offered comfort and even humor in the form of a musical revue.
Whatever resistance D.C. theaters may once have had to LGBT works was by this time fading—understandable, as there was no shortage of out queer directors, critics, performers, designers, and administrators locally. By the mid-’90s, it was not uncommon to find a gay show gracing the season at any of the city’s major repertory houses, almost as if LGBT had become a genre on some cosmic theatrical checklist, to be sandwiched between a season’s African-American drama and its musical.
But not until the turn of the millennium did Washington finally have a theater specifically aimed at gay audiences. An existing company, Actors’ Theater of Washington (later rechristened Ganymede Arts), refocused its mission to devote itself specifically to the LGBT experience, ultimately broadening its scope to include music, dance, and the visual arts. The troupe had a few golden years—SRO crowds for shows both classy (David Mamet’s Boston Marriage) and déclassé (Naked Boys Singing)—but the death of a major benefactor in 2007 and the souring of the economy in 2008 left it reeling. By 2011, it had given up the ghost, albeit in an era when gay audiences are so actively sought-after by mainstream theaters—with gay singles nights at Arena, Whitman-Walker led post-show discussions at Studio—that few would notice.
Which fits neatly with the experience of other cities. Manhattan once had a number of gay troupes operating simultaneously, but does not currently have a substantial company devoted exclusively to LGBT works. San Francisco’s Theater Rhinoceros is the outlier, still producing a full season in its 35th year, but in most communities, shows with gay content are not produced by-and-for gays, but are mined for universality by mainstream theaters.
This was, of course, the goal of LGBT artists a half-century ago when gay culture was something of a secret society, but it’s lamented by some today, who view gay theater as a pale cousin to the queer theater envisaged by Ludlam, Jean Genet, and other early practitioner-revolutionaries.
Journalist Don Shewey writes that this more robust queer theater “grew from communities of people for whom theater was more than a career—it was a way to live. The pioneer out gay theatermakers didn’t start from a theoretical or sociopolitical agenda. Their theatermaking was inseparable from their personal identities, their lives, their social circles, their senses of humor, their need for love and companionship.”
That revolution, by and large, bypassed D.C., but it has also been eclipsed by the passage of time and the mainstreaming of LGBT content not just in theater, but in television, film, sports, the media, and pop culture of all stripes. There’s no question many D.C. theater artists live lives where the lines between theatermaking and personal identity blur, but they do so in a newly accepting mainstream.
As gay activist and The Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer told the New York Times in his typically understated way, “if gay writers had to depend on gays to be their main audience, we’d all starve to death."