From the first coming-out play a century ago to a 1993 Pulitzer winner, Tufts theater experts talk about shows that went beyond stereotypes and broke ground for queer characters
To celebrate Pride Month, Tufts Now asked Tufts faculty and alumni to talk about notable LGBTQ+ plays. They chose works that are culturally significant or personally meaningful—sometimes both. Some are familiar, others downright obscure, but all are groundbreaking.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992)
Maurice Emmanuel Parent, a professor of the practice in theatre, dance, and performance studies, is performing in Angels in America Parts 1 and 2 at Central Square Theater. (Part 1 finished in May and Part 2 opens in September.)
In the Pulitzer-winning play, which centers on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Parent plays Belize, a registered nurse and former drag queen. One of the AIDS patients Belize cares for is Roy Cohn, the real-life lawyer who prosecuted suspected communists with Senator Joe McCarthy. While Belize tolerates and even forgives the ethically void Cohn, his real compassion is for Prior Walter, his former lover and good friend who has tested positive for HIV.
Maurice Parent on revisiting Angels in America:
Angels in America was the first play I did professionally, 15 years ago. I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, optimistic young thing when I played Belize. Now, being a more seasoned person, I can’t do what I did before. I think about what it would mean to be the age I am now at that time, in the 1980s. In a drag house, the older queens would look out for the younger queens, so they would have someone who cared for them. So with Prior, I have an older sibling kind of relationship that adds to the dynamic.
I think that’s what [playwright] Tony Kushner is evoking in that role. To be a drag queen in the early ’80s meant so much about survival and banding together, being a family to weather the storm.
My uncle and his partner, who have been together my entire life, told me stories of being gay and queer and people of color in the ‘80s in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. It really infuses my access to the character. Several of the friends they introduced me to passed away; I’ve been thinking about the generations of creative people we lost during those times. As a queer artist, I’ve been dedicating the shows I’ve been doing lately to those cultural ancestors.
AIDS is a different thing nowadays—the medication is advanced, and people can be undetectable and untransferable, and that's beautiful. And queerness is much more in the public mindset. We
But now people are trying to relegate queer folks back to the sidelines like they were at the time this play was written. Who would have thought in 2023 we'd have these anti-trans, anti-drag, anti-queer laws in these states? I don't even know if we could do this play in some of these states right now.
I’m hearing the words in the play differently than I did in 2008, too. I have this line: “I hate America, Louis. I hate this country.” I think people can't escape seeing a Black man in 2023 saying “I hate this country” and having a reaction to it.
What else has changed? The first time I played the role it was pre-Trump presidency. Now, knowing that Roy Cohn was a mentor of Trump in the ’80s, Roy’s words in the play sting that much more.
A Lady and a Woman (1990)
Set in a small southern town in the 1890s, A Lady and a Woman is the love story of two Black women: Flora, an innkeeper abandoned years prior by her husband, and Biddie, a traveling butcher. Mia Levenson, a Ph.D. candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies, taught the play in her Spring 2021 LGBTQ Theatre course, which she is teaching again this fall.
Mia Levenson on eschewing tropes in A Lady and a Woman:
The first time I encountered a butch character who wasn’t a punchline was in Shirlene Holmes’ A Lady and a Woman. Biddie arrives in Flora’s life at the cusp of the twentieth century, and together the two make a home. Holmes crafts Biddie in contradictions; she is gentle yet firm, hardened through strenuous labor yet capable of forming deep emotional connections with Flora. Biddie reconciles these contradictions without question; she knows herself as “the kind that hauls.”
MISS FLORA: Ain’t you a lady?
BIDDIE: You’re the lady, Miss Flora, I’m a woman.
MISS FLORA: I don’t know if I understand you, Biddie.
BIDDIE: You’re the flower. I’m the blade. You seal up and I open up. You the kind that carries and I’m the kind that hauls.
Women and gender studies scholar Lisa M. Anderson describes A Lady and a Woman as a “‘speculative fiction’ about black lesbian life.” Queer history is not well documented, and Black queer history is even less so. As a period piece, the play imagines a relationship that could have been, using the stage to perform this history for audiences who would not encounter this story in an archive or a museum. A Lady and a Woman both fills a critical gap in Black lesbian representation as well as documents an under-documented history.
My students were moved by Biddie and Flora’s happy ending. Several remarked how they kept expecting life or death to tear them apart and make them victims of the “unhappy lesbians” trope commonly found in literature, film, and other media. The trope derives from mid-twentieth century lesbian pulp fiction where writers created stories about lesbian relationships, only to end with having one or both characters in pain, dead, or married off to a man to get past homophobic censors.
But A Lady and a Woman concludes with the two women dedicating their lives to each other and eagerly waiting for their newly adopted child to arrive. As one of my students said, “At the end, they just get to be. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”
The Boys in the Band (1968)
The Boys in the Band is about a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party in New York City. It was considered groundbreaking in its candid depiction of the lives of gay men. James Nicola, A72, longtime artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, remembers the profound effect seeing the play had on him.
James Nicola on the grand community of The Boys in the Band:
Less than a year after the legendary Summer of Love, six months before Richard Nixon was elected, The Boys in the Band had the audacity to “come out” Off Broadway. Its impact was incalculable—though it is generally believed to have at least partially precipitated The Stonewall Rebellion in June of 1969.
Personally, I arrived on the Tufts campus for the first time, to begin my freshman year, In September 1968. That spring, a sit-down company of the play opened at The Wilbur Theater.
So many events and occasions in one’s life pass by without incident or significant impact, but my seeing this play at The Wilbur was a foundational moment. I can measure my life as being either before that night, or after that night.
It changed me forever.
As a terrified, intimidated young gay man, I had no idea that this curse I was born with was so much more than just a matter of which gender I was sexually attracted to. It was seeing The Boys in the Band that revealed to me that I was part of a grand community, an ancient tribe that had its own definition, rituals, language, attitude, and values. Many of the specific references or elements of humor went over my head, but the thrill was realizing I had so much to learn to be a part of this community. This fact—the learning I had ahead of me—was so exhilarating and powerful. I finally had found my place—and I hadn’t even really understood I was looking for it.
I was never going to be alone and frightened again.
My response was similar to thousands and thousands of other gay men. This long-hidden sense of community, of solidarity, especially in the sharp shift to the right in the public discourse that occurred with Nixon’s election, were the sparks that finally lit the explosion now known as Stonewall.
Mustn’t Do It! (1922)
Researching early drama of same-sex life, Laurence Senelick, Fletcher Professor Emeritus of Drama and Oratory, discovered what he believed to be the first coming-out play: a 1922 Dutch drama by the female novelist Jo Ijssell de Schepper-Becker called Wat Niet Mag … . Senelick translated and published it as Mustn’t Do It! in 2010.
Laurence Senelick on the enduring qualities of Mustn’t Do It!:
In a middle-class family in a small Dutch city, a mother interrogates her son Walter about his “unnatural” closeness with his friend Charles, and Walt confesses to homosexual feelings. He regards them as natural and innate, but knows he is a social pariah. The mother, over the course of the play, comes to understand and sympathize. Walter's bull-headed father feels alienated from his son but fears his wife will leave him if he doesn’t make an effort. Their daughter Lise is devastated to discover that Charles, her fiancé, is also “deviant.” At the end, Walt leaves but insists that his mother stay with the now broken father.
The author offers her audiences a strikingly unprejudiced, unhysterical view. She is, however, far more advanced than her characters, who reflect prevalent attitudes. Everyone agrees on one thing: so long as Walt's sexuality remains unacted upon, it is tolerable. Made flesh, it becomes "wrong.” A homosexual community is unthinkable. There is no indication in the play that Walt will ever have sex with a partner of his own gender.
Given the upbeat nature of gay plays nowadays, Mustn’t Do It might seem regrettably backward and pessimistic. It is, however, highly enlightened for its time. In the 1980s, the many AIDS plays on television presented the same riven family: obstinate father, mother divided in her sympathies, uncomprehending sibling, gay son wracked with guilt. A staging might highlight this play’s enduring qualities.