Op-Ed: Broadway’s Binary Line Between Gay and Straight

| July 19, 2011 6:00 AM video

Tim Cusack founded Theatre Askew in 2004, a company that focuses on LGBT productions.

Tim Cusack is Artistic Director of Theatre Askew. Photo by Ryan Jensen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and “The Normal Heart.” As the artistic director of a queer theater company operating in New York in 2011, I think a lot about the representation of gay people on the commercial Broadway stage, and our community’s purpose therein. What was practically unheard of 30 years ago has become so commonplace as to be unremarkable: Openly gay writers, directors, actors, choreographers and composers producing plays and musicals with openly gay characters, many of whom are the heroes of the story. We most certainly are not in Kansas anymore.

And yet I believe that something essential is missing.

I view “Priscilla” and “The Normal Heart” as twin theatrical poles between which is stretched the queer (male) body. On one end, gay men are fabulous, feminine and frivolous; on the other, tortured, dangerous, martyred. At “Priscilla,” straight spectators leave the theater secure in their gender identities (even while wearing a magenta boa from the concession stand).

Actors from “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” perform “Go West.” The musical opened on Broadway in March 2011.

In Larry Kramer’s AIDS play, “The Normal Heart,” the straight spectator is invited to pity the struggle of the gay men under siege from AIDS, while safely insulated by the fourth wall. Homosexual viewers, meanwhile, are invited to feel smugly superior to both the hetero yahoos in the Aussie outback in “Priscilla” and the straight establishment in “The Normal Heart” that allowed the epidemic to spiral out of control.

Excerpts from “The Normal Heart,” which one a Tony award for “Best Revival of a Play.” The play opened on Broadway in April 2011.

 

I view “Priscilla” and “The Normal Heart” as twin theatrical poles between which is stretched the queer (male) body.

Let me be clear. Both shows deserve to be on stage. If an audience wants to eat cake, why not the most extravagant, glittery Down-Under confection possible? And “The Normal Heart” is indispensable. Every sentient being in the universe should see it. But both shows draw a thick black line down the center of life that says “homos” on one side and “breeders” on the other. Broadway producers and mainstream audiences are comfortable with this clear binary, so these are the works that get Broadway runs.

But there’s another story that needs to be told from the queer perspective. And this is what we do at Theatre Askew.

Though our work is filtered through a queer lens, we’re trying to ask larger questions about politics, history, culture and spirituality. For us, queerness is a metaphor for anyone who rejects the dominant narratives about gender and sexuality — including the one that positions gay and straight as absolute opposites. We are, by our very nature, independent, and we look to the tradition of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Charles Busch’s Limbo Lounge for DIY inspiration. And we believe in passing down this tradition to the next generation through our educational program for queer youth.

Once upon a time, a theater like ours was essential because there were no queer characters on Broadway.  Now gay characters are everywhere.  Yet, I believe our work is more important than ever.

"Busted" is a solo musical written and performed by trans woman (and long-time Askew associated artist) Bianca Leigh. Photo by Max Ruby.

For example, Theatre Askew’s  production coming this September is “Busted,” a solo musical written and performed by trans woman (and long-time Askew associated artist) Bianca Leigh. The piece recounts, through song and narrative, Leigh’s experiences at the Manhattan House of Corrections after being arrested for prostitution.

“Busted” aligns perfectly with our mission on several fronts. First and foremost, it turns the usual prison narrative, familiar from pop culture, on its head. Rather than serving as exotic background or salacious flavoring, a trans person is at the center of the story. And unlike in “Priscilla,” an actual transsexual — not a male actor in drag — plays the trans character in the production.

To further reflect the diversity of the queer community, we invited several songwriters to contribute original material to the show. This group included a trans-identified gay, a lesbian, a straight woman, a heterosexual man, as well as several run-of-the-mill male homosexuals. We wanted to include as many diverse voices working in as many different idioms as possible. And finally, the play is a chilling reminder of how fragile the civil rights protections Americans take for granted actually are.

This type of production drives home the point that even a middle-class, educated, white person can be abused in jail, especially if she’s transsexual.

In a country that locks up a greater percentage of its citizens than any other Western democracy, bearing witness to this reality is a service to everyone. We just do it with a little more flair.

Tim Cusack founded Theatre Askew in 2004 with Jason Jacobs. The company draws from theatrical and literary heritage to create works that confront cultural and political concerns and that have social impact and spiritual consequence. Theatre Askew was honored by NYC ARTS as one of the 2011 Emerging Voices.

  • Mark from NYC

    Mr. Cusack believes that “queerness is a metaphor for anyone who rejects the dominant narratives about gender and sexuality — including the one that positions gay and straight as absolute opposites.” Well, OK, sure… you can certainly assert that. But what’s missing in such as assertion is a more personal, interior understanding of what it is to be human, and to be a queer human.

    Humanity is not essential a political reality. It is a personal one. Great art shows us the personhood we all share — the portrayal of a truth that is personal so as to be understood universally. If you watch more than the musical numbers, “Priscilla” tells the story of queer parenthood — about a gay man remaining on the radical extremes of gender norms while acknowledging his identity as a parent, an identity that is shared by many in the mainstream of society. “The Normal Heart” tells the story of the queer men and women who responded heroically to the threat unleashed upon them, taking their place in history alongside freedom fighters and heroes found in the dramatic representations of the story of Anne Frank, the plays of Athol Fugard, Ibsen and other chroniclers of the oppressed.

    The gay mail body is not stretched between the poles of Priscilla and Normal Heart. The truth of queer lives is being woven into the history of art that depicts what it means to be human — to love, to lose, to fight and to sing and dance with joy — with the presence of Priscilla and Normal Heart on Broadway today.

  • Tim Cusack

    Hi Mark
    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my piece. It’s nice to know someone’s paying attention.
    I think conceptualizing the ideas of “political” and “personal” as opposites is a false dichotomy that is peculiarly American. (And I would argue our culture’s intense investment in training us NOT to think of ourselves as political beings is in and of itself a political act.) I think what makes the work of the artists you cite so powerful is their adroit skill at addressing highly contested issues of power and oppression (against Jews, Blacks and women) in humanely compelling ways. I think that most theater worth anything, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Moliere to yes, Ibsen (my goodness, especially Ibsen) is at its heart a political act. It’s why the theaters are usually one of the first institutions to be shut down and/or controlled by any repressive authoritarian regime, Right or Left.
    However, that wasn’t really my point. I was using this forum to think through the politics of production, if I may coin a phrase. In other words, which theatrical work is deemed safe enough for public consumption that it attracts the millions of dollars in private funding necessary to mount a Broadway production today. I deliberately chose two works that on the surface couldn’t have less in common.
    I actually don’t agree that the main character in Priscilla represents the “radical extremes of gender norms,” unless we have very different notions of what constitutes radical or normative. I think a radical representation would be if the gay drag queen was still interested in having a sexual relationship with his ex-wife. That would shake things up to say the least. Or at least a relationship with somebody, male or female. As it stands, he doesn’t seem to have much sexual interest in anyone, unlike the other two main characters. Perhaps that would be a bit too radical for a Broadway audience. And personally, I found the way that the transgender character’s partner’s funeral was turned into a camp joke to be very dehumanizing. It denied the character any reality of grief–something the original film and Terrance Stamp’s performance most decidedly did not–and permitted, if not asked, the audience to laugh at the tragedy.
    And yes, “Normal Heart” does relate a heroic tale–from 30 years ago. Imagine if “Diary of Ann Frank” hadn’t been considered palatable for a mainstream audience until the mid 1970s. And, yes, I’m very happy that it’s on Broadway, but it’s no longer going to make anyone intensely politically uncomfortable, as the original production did in the 80s.
    Hopefully the work we’re doing at Askew can pick up where the commercial theater is afraid to venture, in a humanistic AND political fashion.

  • Christina Knight

    Feel lucky to eavesdrop on this discussion following the article. I have nothing to add other than my interest!

  • Kasper

    I stumbled onto this page while searching for “the normal heart + smug” because that’s exactly how I felt after reading Larry Kramer’s play. Thank you very much for an excellent read. I whole-heartedly agree with your objections to the kind of plays/movies that, while directing our attention to the plight of a gay minority, at the same time reinforce the comfortable narrative of a binary opposition between gay and straight, which is clearly a fantastic idea rather than a matter of course.

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