Birth of a queer nation

An iconic poster of the legendary 1961 “Judy at Carnegie Hall” concert occupies a sacred niche in the San Antonio College production of Mart Crowley’s landmark 1968 play The Boys in the Band, which is set in a pre-Stonewall Manhattan.

The poster informs the smartly appointed duplex of writer and drama queen Michael (Chris Quiroz), who has invited a few friends for a birthday party honoring Harold (Ray Seams), a self-described “32-year-old, pock-marked, ugly Jew fairy.” The guests include Michael’s longtime friend Donald (Guadalupe Zapata); Bernard, an African-American book clerk (Daniell Wilson); Hank, a divorced schoolteacher (Lucas Gerhardt) and his lover Larry, a photographer (John Belcher); Emory, a flaming antiques dealer (John Perez); and Cowboy, a male hustler and Harold’s birthday gift (James Bond). 

Granted, the characters may initially appear stereotypical, but once the fun and games begin (think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and self-deprecating camp and armor aside, these are flesh and blood men kicking back from the intolerant society they face on a daily basis. The respite is short-lived when Crowley introduces Alan (Michael Muenchow), an uninvited guest from the outside straight world (think Pinter’s The Birthday Party). That outside world still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder (hence all the talk about analysis), sodomy laws were still in effect, those arrested in raids on gay bars and baths often faced moral charges and lost jobs, and homosexuals in the military were routinely given dishonorable discharges.

One doesn’t have to be gay to appreciate Boys or to know the playwrights (Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge) referenced and quoted in Boys.  Or how it resonates in the work of dramatists today — from Terrence McNally to Tony Kushner.

In this (as far as I know a San Antonio first) production of Boys, director Paula Rodriguez has cast young actors in roles written as older characters. Undaunted, Rodriguez adds new twists and nuances to Boys that an exuberant — and also young — opening-night audience seemed to take at face value, since the play still addresses issues facing gays today — we are in Texas after all.

Once the actors settle into their characters’ skins, the ride isn’t as bumpy: Emory’s love for Bizet’s Carmen and Maria Montez takes on a more Latino turn. Hank and Larry face issues that a modern gay couple might encounter in a same-sex marriage. Bernard finds a comic fierceness nourished by the black civil-rights movement, while Cowboy might have walked out of an off-campus cruise bar. And Harold in his Nehru jacket brings a fey elegance to his Lewis Carroll-inspired, pot-smoking caterpillar.

I’d like to imagine that a few of these “boys” would a year later become active in the Stonewall riots that coincidentally (“There are no accidents,” Michael keeps reminding us) erupted the same week Judy Garland died. A timeline of gay cultural and civil-rights history in the foyer of the McCreless Theatre echoes this: Before gay pride, the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, Queer as Folk, Matthew Shepard, Proposition 8, or the recent election of the first openly gay mayor in Houston, Boys was unabashedly and unapologetically showing the discontent brewing in the larger homosexual community.

Back to the poster. Some 45 years later, gay singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright appropriated the “Judy at Carnegie Hall” poster and channeled the entire concert in Garland vocal drag. Gosh, we’ve come a long way down that yellow brick road, Judy.

Boys is currently enjoying an off-Broadway revival, but don’t miss this handsome hometown production. •

Get more details and showtimes, by clicking here.

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