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LGBT Theatre: “Unnatural Acts.”

by Scott Wooledge on July 19, 2011

in Uncategorized

Nick Westrate (center) plays the corrupting Congressman’s son, Ethan Roberts.

I had an occasion to take in an extraordinary piece of theater Saturday night. The play was the Classic Stage Company’s Unnatural Acts in the East Village of New York City. If you have an occasion to get there before it closes on July 24th, I highly recommend you make the effort to find the time.

The play revolves around a bit of real life history recently unearthed from Harvard University, concerning its “Secret Court of 1920.” The Harvard student paper The Crimson dug up the story from trial transcripts it found in 2002, and there was initially something of a row with the school about making the files public. They were eventually published. The Crimson performed a really remarkable feat of investigative journalism to bring the full story to light, Harvard redacted names, and they connected the dots with other public records.

Yeah, there's a little eye candy, amidst the history lesson.

What happened was, it seems in the 1920s, Harvard’s administration had itself a little gay witch hunt. And find gay witches they did, eventually expelling 10 students for “homosexualism.”

The social lynchpin of this elite clique of gay men is Ernest Roberts, a Congressman’s son. He hosted decadent soirees in his room where in defiance of the 18th amendment, the boys drink bathtub gin, danced, made out, dressed in drag and generally embraced the opportunity to let loose from the stifling heterosupremacy of the time.

Trouble comes when incriminating personal letters are unearthed, and are brought to the attention of Harvard administration. The lid is blown off their clandestine parties.

No witch hunt is ever complete until every member of the coven is made to turn on all the others and provides a full list of possible subversives. And this one is no different.

The play’s initial set up explores the affectionate and even innocent nature of the boys’ camaraderie. Then, narrative takes a very dark turn.

The story deftly examines the heartbreaking process of betrayal; how each person—so desperate to salvage something of their lives—invents a scenario to exonerate themselves of the crime they stand accused. Whether culled from nuggets of truth or wholesale lies, each man shares the same goal: escape expulsion, disgrace and ultimate ruin. Their tales to interrogators are intended to evoke a measure of mercy, sympathy or reprieve from the unbridled, omnipotent investigation and retribution. (Ultimately, some were made to leave not just the University, but Cambridge, MA itself.) The only possible escape is to turn the focus on someone else, someone more deviant, someone who presents a much greater danger.

But despite the telling of an era where despair and ostracization were the only options for a notorious and openly gay person, the play isn’t a bummer. It is very often laugh out loud funny. (We homosexuals are a very entertaining people, after all!)

And the point is never lost to the audience that despite the trappings of forbidden alcohol and off-hours carousing, it was always the crime of seeking love and giving it in return that these men were made to suffer.

Go. I went spontaneously at the urging of a friend, and am so glad I did. The cast was wonderful, the directing flawless and the story gripping, touching and educational (always a nice plus in theater). It’s been held over a week, but closes July 24th. It’s one of those rare gems of extraordinary theater that make me glad I live in New York where I can have easy access to such endeavors. Hopefully, the piece will find new life after it closes. It deserves it.

The Crimson’s original expose is here. It’s quite an amazing read.

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