Above: Michael Benjamin Washington, Robin De Jesús, and Charlie Carver
While queer audiences after Stonewall, especially during the 1980 and '90s era of respectability politics, have fretted over the stereotypes in The Boys in the Band, one enigmatic character reminds us this play came out the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, protests against the Vietnam War became fiery, two athletes gave the fist-up Black Power salute at the Olympics, President Richard Nixon was elected, and people across the country were protesting for the rights of women, people of color, and LGBTs. In short, it was a political year a bit like the one we’re in.
Bernard, the bookstore worker and sole black man at the party, is brought to life by Michael Benjamin Washington, who is probably best known for playing Donald, the same-aged “son” of Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock. Washington, who penned and starred in Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, about Rustin’s role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, had already been working on another show about April 1968 when he heard about The Boys in the Band.
“Maya Angelou was planning her 40th birthday party,” Washington says, “to tell her sophisticated New York friends why she was shifting from Black Power and the Malcolm X way of thought, from 1965 when he was killed, to rejoin Dr. King and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], which was a big shift from Black Power back to black Christianity. And as she was preparing for this party, she told Dr. King, ‘Let me have this party first and then I will join you.’ He went to Memphis. While he waited for her to join him, he was assassinated, which triggered her second bout of mutism. My play explores how Jimmy Baldwin, one of her best friends, got her to drag her pen across her scars to tell what happened to her the first time she was a mute, and how I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was created.”
As the script for The Boys in the Band arrived, Washington recalls he “Googled it, and realized that it opened in April of 1968. I got this goosebump up my spine.”
Both Bernard the character and the original actor who played him remain a bit enigmatic. Reuben Greene has been off the grid since the 1990s. In his last interview, with Lawrence Ferber for Windy City Times, Greene reflected on his Boys character: “I think the main thing was he was isolated as a black person and a homosexual.” Greene also said that because he wasn’t gay, a gay actor might portray Bernard differently. “There’s another experience that someone else can bring. Someone who has had that experience.”
Fifty years later, Washington sees Bernard as being at a crossroads. “I find that all of the men in this play are struggling to figure out who they are in the context of a political scene that’s very, very hostile,” says Washington. “I was really drawn to the idea that Bernard, this black man in this white world, whose friends are — at least at this birthday party — all white. I think this play opened April 14, 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on the 4th, Bobby Kennedy in June. This great integration experiment is imploding right in front of his face. So, how did he survive inside of this tribe where it too is imploding? That seems to be the biggest parallel [to today]. What is the price he pays to be a member of this tribe — and [what does] it costs him to remain there? The Black Power movement was just giving birth in 1968. So, this man is going to have to make a lot of big decisions soon about the tribe that he wants to ally himself with. And I think because of the timing of when Mart [Crowley] wrote it, right before Stonewall, right before everybody had to make decisions about their own liberation — gay, black, straight, women, and otherwise — Bernard really represents to me that person who was once on one side of the fence, now is on the fence during the play, and we kind of wonder when he exits at the very end, which side will he be on tomorrow?”
In The Boys in the Band, the oppression and stigma that keeps these men in the closet is ultimately what is responsible for making them depressed, anxious, suicidal, or prone to addiction. It’s not an inherent psychological pathology that LGBT folks share. That’s a particularly resonant message even in 2018. As some states ban conversion therapy while others find religious loopholes, watching a character unravel like Michael, a devout Catholic, can remind us of how many people in certain religious communities still suffer.
There are other issues just as relevant. Rannells discovered the movie at a Nebraska Blockbuster as teen and at first found it both confusing (Why are the friends “being so mean?”) and a bit inspiring (“Look, I can have a life where I’m just with my friends … living [my] authentic life, in New York City”). Rannells’s character, Larry, and Tuc Watkins’s Hank, are the only two characters that are in an active relationship. Their argument, Rannells says, is one a lot of couples and particularly a lot of gay couples still have: “Is monogamy something we should be striving for? That sort of heteronormative mold — is that something that men, and gay men specifically, should be trying to attain?” For Larry, like thousands of men, even in the age of marriage equality, that doesn’t feel like a realistic or honest goal.
“First of all, to have a couple that is committed to each other in many ways, in 1968, but yet still struggling with this idea of should we open up the relationship, should we not … that’s a conversation that certainly people are still having today,” Rannells says. “I think the danger is saying that ‘this works for everyone’ and that’s not the case. It’s not only about who you’re with, but where you are in your own life, and your own process. I love that Hank and Larry are sort of in the midst of hashing all of this out in this party. I feel it’s a very contemporary conversation to be having.”
There’s an old Lakota proverb that says people without history are like wind on the buffalo grass. Americans love to say that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. That’s not a concern for Watkins.
“I think young people are actually very in tune with their history,” Watkins says, although he acknowledges that some may ask “‘Why should I see it today? There’s self-loathing. … Why do we want to go back and watch that?’ Well, I understand that. But we do have to look over our shoulders and understand why we are allowed to do what we’re doing because of the people that came out [before] us.”
Carver agrees: “It’s important to know one’s history because not only does it lead to a sense of appreciation for what you have, but I think it galvanizes one toward protecting that and trying to usher in whatever the next phase of liberation may be.”
Each man here recognizes the privilege of being at this point in history. These characters show the lengths LGBT people have gone through for their friends, especially in decades where most were cast out of their family of origin for being gay.
“The thing is, ultimately, these guys are all in it together,” says Quinto. “They’re all up against the litany of social adversity that was just a hallmark of the early to mid-1960s America, and still exists in some vestige today. That’s where the camaraderie comes from; they can eviscerate each other ... and say horrible things but at the end of the day they’re there for each other, they understand what each other is going through and they’ve got each other’s backs. That’s the beauty of the play ... showing up for your brothers and being there for them in their moments of grace and moments of indignity, and understanding in a different world, maybe 50 years from now, we won’t have to endure these same kinds of attacks and diminishments that fuel this kind of bitterness. And luckily, by and large, we can say that’s true.”