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Ten plays that shaped queer theater
Long before cinema and television began to tell the stories of the LGBT community, theater had been laying out the groundwork that made it possible for a Brokeback Mountain or a Will & Grace to exist.
In fact, long before all the new media options--from U-Tube and Logo to other internet and cable outlets--the age-old art of theater has been telling stories of, by and for queer people. It is very common these days to find lists of the most popular or most important films or television shows, film actors or celebrities.
For this season of Pride, it is important to raise the curtain on some of the most important, relevant and aesthetically powerful works of the stage that have not only told the stories of LGBT people, but have celebrated the community and their endurance in the face of all the obstacles thrown their way.
Listed below, alphabetically, are 10 rominent works and their lasting presence within the annals of theatrical history. Some are older works, others are brand new. Yet what they all have in common are three things: an unmitigated commitment to the highest artistic standards; an honesty in storytelling from a queer point of view about our collective humanity--warts, foibles, grace, strength and all; and a deep seated desire to use theater to change the world around us for the better.
While no works from Tennessee Williams, Holly Hughes, Caryl Churchill, Tim Miller or Oscar Wilde have made the list, their works are nonetheless noteworthy for their contributions to queer theater.
Film versions of many of these pieces have been made, and are more readily available than seeing the play itself.
Angels in America
This epic two-parter (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) is not only an important piece of queer theater, but is, without any hyperbole, one of the most important dramas ever written. Tony Kushner weaves an intricate, magical, politically explosive, sexually charged piece about America in the 1980s in the era of Regan, the onset of AIDS and the thirst for a better America.
The play is littered with historical allusions, surreal illusions and a gut-wrenching scrutiny about religious, political, and cultural hypocrisies in America vis-à-vis the gay population. Yet for all its erudite aspirations, Angels in a hopelessly human, unflinchingly universal play about the last frontier of civil rights in the U.S.
The play is deeply funny and yet brutally tragic--it blends hyperrealism with surrealism, expressionism with existentialism with the deft touch that only a genius like Kushner can.
Martin Sherman’s 1979 play is necessary at so many levels. It was the first and perhaps only, play to deal with the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi Holocaust--something often ignored if not denied, even within Holocaust studies and circles.
Sherman shines the spotlight brightly on the horrible ways in which homosexuals were rounded up and dragged to their deaths and destruction simply for being gay.
The real beauty is that Sherman’s subversive writing tells of this historical blight through a doomed love affair between Max and Horst, two inmates in a death camp. The stunning climax will leave you breathless.
The play--based on the real-life chronicles of survivor Hans Heger titled The Men With the Pink Triangles--brought to prominence Ian McKellan on the West End in London, and Richard Gere on Broadway.
Bent reminds us that even with horrible tragedies like the Holocaust queer folk are still marginalized when their stories are not told, their devastation not acknowledged.
The Children’s Hour
Lillian Hellman’s way-ahead-of-its-time play tells about the awfully destructive nature of rumors. When a rumor that two teachers are lesbian spreads in a 1930s girls school, lives are ruined. Based on a real-life event from Scotland, Hellman’s play is prescient for our times when many such incidents continue to occur. The play was speaking bravely about the ruinous nature of homophobia even back then.
It is also a reminder that like in so many forms of entertainment, lesbian stories are rare since most of the theater seems to focus on the lives of gay men, often white, upper-class ones.
La Cage aux Folles
The original play by Jean Poiret and the musical adaptation by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman both deserve a mention here. The gist here is that gay men do have long-term relationships, as beautiful and as problematic as straight ones, and they can raise children with the same dignity and grace as their heterosexual counterparts. Also born out of the original play was a French film of the same title and its American remake, The Birdcage.
The Laramie Project
Written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, the play hones in on the real-life story about the gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard. Based on over 200 interviews with inhabitants of Laramie, Wyoming, where Shepard was beaten, and news reports, the play has a documentary feel to it that is riveting and moving.
Even though the play is set after Shepard’s death, his presence looms large in a piece that warns of the horrible plight facing LGBT people in a culture that still vilifies homosexuals. This is a play which, in its own subtle and powerful ways, demands change in the society at large.
Love! Valour! Compassion!
By out playwright Terrence McNally, this tragicomedy tells the story about the lives of eight gay men as they spend three summers at a lake house in upstate New York.
McNally seems particularly interested in how these men are coping after ten years of HIV and AIDS has ravaged the community. Stunningly funny and startlingly moving, McNally creates characters who are as diverse as it gets, from a Latin hunk and a blind twink to two aging queens and even a pair of Jekyll and Hyde-like twins.
The play culminates with a unique and poignant sequence of the men practicing a section of Swan Lake for a fundraiser. It also gained notoriety for its lengthy sequences when some or all of the characters are naked on stage. Yet it never feels sleazy, rather metaphorical for the stories of eight men baring all in their lives as they seek peace, love, revenge and redemption.
Sadly, the film version could not capture the beauty and joy of the play.
The Normal Heart
Along with As Is, this play by activist-writer Larry Kramer was one of the first to deal with HIV and AIDS. It is actually a fictionalized recounting of Kramer’s founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City during the early days of the plague.
The play has all of Kramer’s own hallmarks as on of the great icons of queer activism--anger, courage, and unflinching humanity.
A Poster of the Cosmos
Openly gay writer Lanford Wilson, who has written many plays with queer characters, wrote this one-act monologue about a blue collar working guy in New York City who is being interrogated about the death of his lover.
What emerges in the ensuing hour or so is a heartbreaking story about love and the loss of it.
Framed by the presence of AIDS, the play is a lyrical yet stark portrayal of the layers of pain that queer love must endure both from within and without. Wilson packs into a one-act what most writers struggle to accomplish in full-length plays.
Torch Song Trilogy
Writer, actor and activist Harvey Fierstein’s play in three acts--“International Stud,” “Fugue in a Nursery” and “Widows and Children First”--celebrates the life and longings of a New York drag queen over many years.
Told with Fierstein’s inimitable humor and panache, Torch Song Trilogy really paved the way for a lot of gay theater from the 1980s onward.
Vampire Lesbians of Sodom
This edgy, comedic and meta-theatrical work by über-performer Charles Busch is a farcical cult hit about the disparate yet similar worlds of vampires and movies.
Busch is an icon in his own right, having broken down many taboos in the theater, including the notion of men playing women’s roles as serious performances, not ones in drag. This of course opens up the door for Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Moreover, Busch’s unique brand of entertainment, which melds the kitschy with the political has influenced a lot of queer theater and performers.