Lanford Wilson’s 1964 one-act The Madness of Lady Bright, a dynamic character study of an aging drag queen, is frequently cited as America’s first “gay play.” It premiered at Caffe Cino, an off-off-Broadway coffeehouse theater in New York’s Greenwich Village that also nurtured the work of emerging gay playwrights Robert Patrick, Tom Eyen, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and William M. Hoffman.
Mart Crowley’s 1968 The Boys in the Band was the first mainstream commercial hit about gay life. Set at an all-male birthday party whose bitter host draws his guests into a round of ugly but ultimately cathartic emotional games, the play depicts (as I wrote when I reviewed a 1997 About Face production) “the transformation of a subculture of shame into a community bound by self-understanding, self-respect, loyalty, and love.” Originally produced off-Broadway, Boys finally came to Broadway last year for a short run (for which it won a Tony Award for best revival), and in January, Windy City Playhouse will give the script its first Chicago staging in 20 years.
Martin Sherman’s harrowing, brilliant Bent, which premiered in London in 1979 before making its way to Broadway the following year, concerns a Berliner in Hitler’s Germany who’s sent to a concentration camp, where he passes as a Jew rather than a homosexual, earning a yellow star on his camp uniform instead of the more despised pink triangle. But his pose is compromised when he falls in love with an openly gay fellow inmate despite constant surveillance by gun-toting guards.
Jane Chambers’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove opened off-Broadway in 1980, three years before Chambers died at age 46. It’s the story of a dissatisfied middle-aged married woman who falls in love with another woman she meets while on a vacation at a Long Island beachfront colony. Groundbreaking in its time, this once-popular, now-neglected tearjerker—along with the other plays in Chambers’s oeuvre—deserves another look.
Harvey Fierstein’s funny and moving Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway in 1982 after developmental productions off-off-Broadway in the late 1970s. It’s a suite of one-acts about wisecracking but vulnerable female impersonator Arnold Beckoff and his complex relationships with his bisexual lover, Ed; Ed’s wife, Laurel; a gay teenager named David whom Arnold adopts; and, most intensely, Arnold’s disapproving mother. A shortened version of the work, titled Torch Song, played on Broadway last year and is slated for a national tour this fall.
As Is and The Normal Heart, two dramas set during the first years of the AIDS crisis in New York, both premiered off-Broadway in 1985. William M. Hoffman’s poetic As Is concerns a gay couple who separate, then reunite when one of the men is diagnosed with what was then an almost inevitably fatal disease. Larry Kramer’s semiautobiographical The Normal Heart scrutinizes with angry and sometimes anguished candor the ideological and personal conflicts among AIDS activists in the early 80s.
Tony Kushner’s sprawling “gay fantasia on national themes,” Angels in America, is a two-part epic chronicling the experiences of a network of people impacted by AIDS in 1985-1990, when medical advances began making the illness more manageable. A scathing indictment of Reagan-era indifference to the epidemic (the cast of characters includes real-life right-wing power broker Roy Cohn), it’s also a meditation on humanity’s relationship to whatever divine forces may be at work in our lives, balancing philosophical, religious, and political inquiry with cracking-good soap-opera plotting.
Fun Home, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s quirky 2015 musical, is adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir. It depicts Alison as a child, adolescent, and adult, charting her process of coming out and her troubled relationship with her closeted gay father.
In a year when American voters are considering the possibility of a small-city mayor becoming the nation’s first openly gay president, Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau are making waves with Ms. Blakk for President, described by Reader critic Dan Jakes as a “docu-party celebrating the true story of queer activist Terence Alan Smith, aka drag queen Joan Jett Blakk,” who ran for president in 1992 on the Queer Nation Party ticket. Cowritten by McCraney and Landau, the show is directed by Landau (who was named one of Out magazine’s “Out100” in 2009) and stars McCraney, whose other work on LGBTQ themes includes the plays Choir Boy, Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, and In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which became the basis of the film Moonlight. v