Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 November 2012

Pinkface?

Speaking of Tony Kushner, the school that currently employs me as a visiting lecturer recently did a production of Kushner's epic Pulitzer prize-winning 1992 play Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Part 1 - Millennium Approaches. This was a couple of weeks ago and I've been trying to think for a while about how to talk about my experience while watching this production.

The production was beautifully designed, but (to be frank about things) it didn't work. I was watching these lovely kids up there laboring with difficulty to make the play make sense, but... it was clear that they didn't get it.

And the director probably didn't either.

It was also really clear just how straight the audience was when I found myself the only one laughing as Prior said Come back, little Sheba!

But I had an even stronger reaction to this as the play continued. This isn't theirs, I thought. There is something actually wrong about watching these kids do this play. They don't understand it because it isn't for them, or rather, it isn't about them. This is not theirs.

The implication here is, of course, that Angels in America is somehow mine, and that I have more entrée into the play than undergraduates who will be taking their degrees between 2013 and 2016. And the more I think about it, the more true I think that is – as laughable as that sounds.

It is because these kids aren't gay. They're up there on the stage playing gay characters, which is (I am sure they think) very admirable and brave and all, but the more I watched the more wrong the whole thing felt. A friend of mine said to me after the show that she imagined it must've been like watching actors in brownface or blackface, and I think she's right. It did feel like that.

The thing is, this happens all of the time on television and in the movies. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play gay and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays gay and I don't give it a second thought. But most of the films and television programs where gay characters are played by straight actors are written by straight writers and helmed by straight directors. These representations don't feel as though they belong to my culture in any serious way. (Brokeback Mountain isn't a gay film in my mind. It's a film for straight people made by straight people. I would call Noah's Arc or Gayby or Elephant or Weekend gay cultural productions: representations made by gay people for gay people.) And so it doesn't usually offend me to see a straight actor playing a gay character on Will & Grace or The Wire or whatever. We have our own images; it doesn't matter much if they also want to create images of us. (Transamerica is a notable, offensive, exception.)

But Angels in America is different. This was the great gay epic of the early 1990s. The play's characters are gay, their humor is gay – even the straight female character's humor is campily queer – and it is about the actual history of gay men, including legendary homophobe and homophile Roy Marcus Cohn. And I understand this is an androcentric post; it is so necessarily. And I am sure that I am not taking many other important things into consideration here. I am equally sure that I have no interest in articulating a program for some kind of "correct" representation of gay men.

All I am saying is that watching these straight boys up on stage going through their gay paces felt sacrilegious to me. I've never felt this way before, but I expect that this will not be the last time.