On July 25, 2011—the day after gay marriage became legal in New York State—three same-sex couples stood on the stage of Broadway’s St. James Theatre. They were flanked by the cast of Hair, who had just finished that evening’s performance. As more than a thousand audience members watched from the house, actor Colman Domingo, who had been ordained especially for the occasion, conducted a triple-header wedding ceremony.
As he stood among the beaming couples—all of whom had connections to the theatre field—Domingo called out, “Isn’t this beautiful, everybody?” He was answered with wild applause.
It was a moment of raucous love. And, like any wedding, it was also a moment of theatre. Staging this group ceremony in the midst of a Broadway show intensified its power, Domingo believes. “Behind you, the Tribe from Hair, they’re just feeling all the love,” recalls the actor, who is currently appearing in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot at New York City’s Signature Theatre. “They’re still just coming down off the high of the show. They’re sweating, and they’re still in costume, and from the audience I can hear sniffles—and roars of love and support.
“There were people from all walks of life in that audience,” Domingo goes on, “and who knows, maybe even people who may not believe in gay marriage. That’s what I thought was so powerful—they were all here to bear witness to this thing, and the production of Hair primed them for it.” Those tying the knot, with the blessings of the Tribe, were actor Terri White and jewelry designer Donna Barnett, actor Ryan Dietz and playwright Josh Levine, and stage doorman John Raymond Barker and usher Jared Pike.
The Hair weddings are a handy symbol for the theatre’s role in the same-sex marriage crusade that has engendered national debate over the past several years. Most obviously, they represent a clear political stance and a passion for community action. These qualities have defined organizations like Broadway Impact, an activist group founded by theatre professionals, which has staged public rallies for same-sex marriage and hosted community information events in Manhattan bars. Broadway Impact also helped present the Hair weddings—no surprise, since its co-founder Gavin Creel was in the original cast of the Broadway revival.
But those across-the-footlight unions do more than suggest political ideals. Their duality—their simultaneous existence as performance and reality, as theatre and life—also conjures up the ambiguity that is an essential ingredient in a spate of new plays and performance pieces about marriage equality. These works have emerged in recent seasons in big-city theatres and small-town ensembles. Sometimes, they have a structural flexibility that makes us wonder if we’re at a pleasant musical or a political rally. At other times, there’s a philosophical ambivalence that prompts us to question the idea of marriage itself. Rarely, however, is there an easy path, a clear divide, between “entertainment” and “life,” or a partisan assertion of right or wrong. Like the political cause itself—which, it sometimes seems, produces a new legal twist or a fractious protest every day—the American theatre of gay marriage seems energized by constant flux.
We Support Gay Marriage? (But Do We Want It?)
It’s clear, though, that the theatre community’s position on this issue, however complex, hardly matches that of the rest of the country. Almost no one in the American theatre establishment seems to side with the political opponents of same-sex marriage, who typically insist that queer unions threaten heterosexual traditions or anger God. Instead, theatre artists debate from positions within the Left, sorting out the finer points of a presumptively pro-gay attitude.
Those may be the only points of debate the community will tolerate. In 2008, when it was revealed he contributed $1,000 to support Proposition 8, the controversial amendment to California’s constitution that defined marriage in purely heterosexual terms, Scott Eckern was forced to resign as artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento. For better or worse, Eckern’s expulsion set the tone for how the marriage issue would be discussed on prominent American stages. Since then, no high-profile theatremaker has made an argument against gay marriage.
That pro-gay bias and its possible consequences were discussed during an online talkback last November after an international event showcasing Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, a collection of nine short pieces by playwrights such as Neil LaBute and Doug Wright. More than 40 theatres in the U.S., Canada and Australia simultaneously performed the set of one-acts on a single night, and audiences were then invited to log on to a live-stream conversation with some of the writers, who were ensconced at the Minetta Lane Theatre, where the show was running Off Broadway. As participants from around the world submitted questions, the discussion eventually turned to the production’s liberal slant.
“We are engaging in a debate where only one side actually wants to be heard,” suggested Wright, the author of such boundary-pushing plays as I Am My Own Wife and Quills, whose contribution to Standing on Ceremony was On Facebook, an adaptation of a real gay marriage debate he had with Facebook friends. “If you look at the Prop 8 trial,” Wright noted, “who didn’t want those transcripts published? Who didn’t want it televised? The opposition.” Wright was referring to the ongoing case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now known as Perry v. Brown), a lawsuit filed in 2009 by the American Foundation for Equal Rights to challenge the validity of Prop 8. California government officials have declined to defend the law in court, so several outside groups have intervened in their stead. Part of their legal strategy is to fight to keep the trial from being televised live and from having video released after the fact, citing the possibility that Prop 8 defenders will be harassed.
But even within liberal-to-moderate communities, there are disagreements about what marriage equality can and should mean. “The idea of marriage has been disturbing to me as a feminist because of its history based in property and oppression of women,” says Joan Lipkin, producing artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis, Mo. “And just as a human being, I’ve noticed the escalating divorce rate, and I’ve said to myself, ‘Why would somebody want to go down that road?’”
That question animates The State of Marriage, a freewheeling comedy that Lipkin wrote and co-produced in June 2010. The play’s action unfolds at a straight wedding, but things go cockeyed when the gay-marriage movement causes an earthquake (both metaphorically and literally) and familiar elements of the ceremony are suddenly “queered.” For instance, the Electric Slide, that damnable line dance from the early ’90s, becomes the Infidelity Slide, where performers and patrons dance while bridesmaids call out the names of famous heterosexuals who didn’t preserve the sanctity of their marriages.
But even though straight people aren’t always good at marriage, the show insists that official, state-sanctioned coupling is an important step for gay people. A drag queen makes frequent references to the federal rights that are only available to straight couples, and, in one scene, she offers gay audience members a slice of wedding cake, then snatches it away. They can see the reward, but they can’t taste it.
And, Lipkin’s script contends, there are feelings to consider. At one point, characters re-create the Equality Bus, which in 2009 drove gay and lesbian couples from St. Louis to Iowa, where gay marriage had just been legalized. The passengers explain their trip to the heterosexual groom, who can’t fathom why “a bus full of queers” is driving through his wedding. Lipkin, it turns out, was actually on the Equality Bus, and it complicated her ideas about marriage. “Before, I had primarily supported same-sex marriage as a matter of principle—as a matter of civil rights,” she says. “But as I began to work on the play, I began to appreciate the fuller psychological dimensions of what the ceremony meant, of what the change in status meant.”
There’s a similar tension in Let Them Eat Cake, an interactive performance piece by Holly Hughes, Moe Angelos and Megan Carney that played at Manhattan’s Dixon Place in late 2010. Like The State of Marriage, this show physicalizes political anxieties by staging a wedding—this time, a gay ceremony run amok. It particularly addresses the fear that gay people who get married are hetero-normative (meaning they ape hetero traditions in order to be “good”). In an essay about issues raised by the show, written for the lesbian culture website Velvetpark, Hughes notes, “The couple is at the center of heterosexual life. But at the center of gay life, there’ve been friends, community, the chosen family—coupling, but often no couple. Will this all disappear?”
Several of the short plays in Standing on Ceremony grapple with this and related questions. In Mo Gaffney’sTraditional Wedding, a lesbian couple reflects on their relationship, and one of them says:
It’s funny, when you grow up thinking there is no way a certain thing can ever happen for you, you belittle it, you make fun of it, you say it’s stupid because if it IS meaningful, if it does matter, then where does that leave you? I used to say a piece of paper couldn’t possibly make a difference in how two people feel. But then it did. It does. For me, anyway. Maybe not for everybody.
Asked about this passage, Gaffney says, “A lot of people are saying, ‘I don’t want to get married because it’s a totally hetero concept,’ and I think, ‘Well, good for you. A lot of straight people don’t want to get married.’ You can create anything you want, but the point is, you should have as much choice as anyone else.”
A different, more nuanced point of view emerges in London Mosquitoes, the Standing on Ceremony contribution by playwright-director Moisés Kaufman, about a man eulogizing his longtime companion. The character says:
Paul yelled at me and said, “If we married now, we’d be having our one-year anniversary next year. What would that say about the last 45 years? That we were just messing around?”… We’re always gaining things. Small and large victories. But each triumph has a price. We get AIDS medications, but our fighting spirit ceases to soar. We get to come out of the closet, but we lose the delicious clandestine habits of the past. We get “marriage” but we lose the rigor of inventing our own unions.
In a phone interview, Kaufman (author of such groundbreaking gay works as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and co-creator, with his Tectonic Theater Project, of The Laramie Project) clarifies his ambivalence about the advent of legalized same-sex unions. “This is an incredible victory. But how wonderful if we could rejoice in that victory, yet at the same time maintain our creativity and ingenuity with regard to how we construct and maintain our own unions.”
We’re Getting Married (But Who’s Invited?)
Plays, if not playwrights themselves, weren’t always this conflicted. Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart in 1985, and in that play two characters are “married” in a commitment ceremony moments before one of them dies of AIDS. There’s no question it’s a meaningful and important thing to do. In The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, a 1998 fantasia by Paul Rudnick that recasts Biblical history with gay heroes, a lesbian couple gets married in the midst of giving birth. The ceremony is played as just another moment in the glorious madness of becoming a family. (Rudnick also contributed two pieces to Standing on Ceremony.)
But, then again, those plays were written when gay marriage was just a dream. Now that it’s real in so many places, the topic demands a different kind of engagement. That’s apparent not only in these new plays’ politics, but also in their form. For example, Lipkin says naturalism was never an option for The State of Marriage. “Because the play deconstructs marriage, the form of the piece needed to be unconventional as well,” she explains. “It needed to be sprawling.”
There’s also urgency in the shape and presentation of 8, Academy Award–winning writer Dustin Lance Black’s play about the Prop 8 hearings in California. By drawing from the actual transcripts of the trial, 8 underlines its own political purpose. Plus, the play’s most high-profile performances have been star-studded staged readings. Last Sept. 19, Morgan Freeman and John Lithgow joined a performance at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theater, and George Clooney is scheduled to headline a performance at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Ebell Theatre on March 3. Broadway Impact has teamed with the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group that filed the anti–Prop 8 lawsuit, to mount readings at universities and theatres across the country.
Why not a full-fledged production? The low-commitment strategy underscores the urgency of the cause: Who has time for a full production when the issues are evolving this very minute?
Not every piece of gay-marriage theatre is radically structured or overtly political. Consider the sweet-natured musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, by Canadians David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff. The show traces the true story of Hein’s own mother, who divorced his father on her way to the unconventional marriage touted in the title. Though it doesn’t avoid politics, the show mostly focuses on character relationships. That arguably makes it “universal,” which may explain the show’s success: After appearing at the Toronto Fringe in 2009, it scored a lengthy commercial run from Canadian presenter Mirvish Productions and went on to win prizes at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The play is running through March 11 at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre in St. Paul and will have several productions this summer in Canada and the U.S. (Meanwhile, the similarly nonpolitical My Big Gay Italian Wedding, by Anthony J. Wilkinson, enjoyed a 15-month run Off Broadway in 2010–11 by wrapping the titular festivities in sitcom-style humor and ethnic caricature.)
Co-author Sankoff feels Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding’s gentle tone helps it reach an audience that might be inclined to reject gay politics. “It’s a show where you could bring more conservative audiences and have them be like, ‘Oh, that lesbian couple down the street from me is really just like me and my husband,’” she reasons.
Hein, Sankoff’s husband, adds that Canada’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 freed the couple to write a more “general interest” show. “By 2009, when we put the show up, we’d gotten used to it. There is certainly still homophobia in the country, but to some degree, our play was a reminder that we can be proud of this.” He adds, though, that when the musical is staged in the U.S., it often plays like a “rallying cry.” That suggests continuing uncertainty in America’s theatrical response to the marriage equality issue: Who are these plays for? The converted? The undecided? Agitprop-loving theatre buffs or Saturday matinee crowds? Can they be for all those people at once?
Such questions may continue to haunt Standing on Ceremony, which lasted six weeks Off Broadway despite its open-ended commercial run. The play’s producers are currently licensing regional productions, and to succeed the show will need to attract a wide variety of patrons.
“First and foremost, we’re a play,” asserts producer Joan Stein, “an evening in the theatre that illuminates aspects of relationships that everyone experiences.” To that end, Standing on Ceremony is delivered in a straightforward, staged-reading style. But the November evening of simultaneous performances, co-produced with Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project (which engineered a similar multi-city event for its sequel to The Laramie Project in 2009), turned into an experiment in teasing out the politics in “universal” stories. “Spectators from all over the country feel united in a theatrical experience that is bigger than just what’s happening within the walls of that one room,” Kaufman says. “It’s incredibly exciting to feel part of a larger dialogue.”
Maybe dialogue is the single most important thing gay-marriage theatre can aspire to right now. As the question of marriage equality is far from resolved in the U.S., artists can’t be expected to look back, sum up or reach consensus. What they can do is get messy, engaging with this tumultuous topic from as many points of view as possible. “It’s to make you think,” Gaffney says of the impulse behind her play Traditional Wedding. “You can present these ideas, these concepts, these issues in such a way that people don’t feel like they have to make up their mind this minute. They can just experience the possibilities.”
Journalist and critic Mark Blankenship lives in New York City. He got engaged to a man while he was working on this story.