We know we can get things good, fast, or cheap, but seldom all three at once. Likewise, when it comes to plays with queer themes in the Triangle, it seems we can get them new, relevant, or well-attended.
If you want something writ large on season brochures, you need a few decades of distance. I'm talking about your classic "gays in crisis" plays, such as Bent (set in the 1930s), Perfect Arrangement (the 1950s), and The Normal Heart (the 1980s), all recently seen in the Triangle. And Justice Theater Project will bring I Am My Own Wife, a major play about a transgender woman, to the main stage next season. Like Bent, which JTP also staged, Wife takes us back to Nazi Germany. But if you want to talk about trans persecution and Nazis roaming the streets, you can just look to 2018.
We see fewer queer plays that deal with modern young people's day-to-day struggles. As an exception, Colman Domingo's Dot, staged at PlayMakers last Christmas, is about a family that includes gay characters. This factors into the story as it would in many families. But it's not a play "about gay themes." No gay character is dying or commits suicide. We don't see them prancing about the countryside of a weekend, reveling in their gayness, something to which today's queer kids cannot relate. If a bunch of drama geeks can take over the national narrative on gun control and intimidate Congress, they certainly deserve to see themselves on the stage.
This year, Burning Coal Theatre Company immaculately produced Larry Kramer's classic AIDS drama, The Normal Heart, whose protagonist would be in his eighties now. It's not that it's irrelevant. Trump has no Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, no strategy. He seeks no input from experts and pushes legislation that will result in death.
Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis says he wishes that a play about the Reagan administration killing off its queer citizens wasn't still so topical; he'd prefer AIDS crisis plays to "come to be thought of as quaint period pieces."
Actor Brent Blakesley, who recently played gay Berliner Rudy in JTP's Bent, worries about the endless revivals of Angels in America and Rent.
"There's a risk that the audience doesn't realize that these do not reflect the current HIV experience," Blakesley says.
The quality of the plays and productions, not just the content, matters. We need works relevant to all in the queer community, not just white gay men in crisis.
Mashuq Mushtaq Deen's Draw the Circle at PlayMakers was the rarest of gems, a brand new and strikingly resonant play about a transgender person of color. But this premiere was given "second stage" status, playing only a week in PlayMakers' smaller Kenan Theatre.
Still, there are glimmers of hope in the Triangle. In addition to cautionary crisis plays, we've recently seen several "gay today" works: The Cake, Mothers and Sons, Dot, and Space Girl all have queer authors and/or believable queer themes. They're new, relevant, well-attended. Quantity and quality.
There has been one notable absence. Given the international attention surrounding the HB 2 debacle, the local stage's silence on it has been conspicuous.
"I'm shocked we didn't have a major [new play] centered on trans issues," says local producer Glenn Greggs, who reads new-play submissions regularly.
So whose job is it to get us on track? Artistic directors must lead the way, but a top-down approach does not always work. Season selection is usually akin to the selection of a pope. Unless you're on the inside, you just have to wait to see the smoke. If companies are concerned about representation, letting the public into the process couldn't hurt—especially if taxpayer dollars are in play. I can't imagine a lesbian theatergoer being too excited about seeing Lillian Hellman's hyper-tragic The Children's Hour again. Sometimes lesbians just go to the grocery store and argue about salsa. Not every conversation need end in suicide.
For its inaugural production, coming up in April at Raleigh's VAE, Star Pocket Theatre chose A Member of the Wedding, which illustrates the pressures of gender conformity on young people.
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre and Manbites Dog Theater have proven that gay leadership can result in more gay stories on stage. When I pointed out to Timothy Locklear, artistic director at NRACT, that six of his 2017–18 shows featured queer characters, he was surprised. Not everything he chose was deliberately a "gay play."
"It is important for [theater] to mirror society," he explains. Queer characters are just part of that landscape. By contrast, he's going all-in next season with a little-known satire Gay Card: The Musical.
Manbites Dog has long led the charge on producing queer theater, even festivals. Theatre in the Park and Raleigh Ensemble Players did their fair share of the early heavy-lifting. The News & Observer theater critic Roy C. Dicks posits that theaters like TIP and REP flourished because Manbites proved that "the subject matter seemed to be not only accepted but well-attended." You aren't going to lose money because a play is queer—at least not in our area.
So it's not that queer content cannot be found. You just have to dig for it sometimes. Or, better yet, create it yourself. Burning Coal has commissioned a new play by a lesbian author for next season. But not every company can go that route, nor does it have to. It's all out there; it's just not always reaching the stage.
Katy Koop's lesbian-driven The Amazing Cunt and L'il Bitch Take Raleigh needed a New York City workshop and a Minneapolis queer-festival appearance before anyone in the Triangle would touch it.
"If the Women's Theatre Festival had not happened," Koop says, "I doubt the play would have been produced in North Carolina at all."
None of this is to say that productions of gay history plays are inherently lacking value. Many have meaningful messages, tell stories of other marginalized groups, and can be very entertaining, bringing in much-needed funds for smaller theater companies. We do need stories of the past. But we get bogged down in gay heritage. We need stories of past, present, and future.
Glenn Greggs puts it plainly. "The next generation certainly isn't going to be any straighter, and they'll need people to look to on the stage."