Right-wing conservatives are notorious for trying to blot out any mention of gay history in schools. Even so, most people know that the Stonewall Riots of 1969 were the flashpoint that kicked off the modern equal rights movement for LGBTQ people.
"Our history is so important to us. In our current state, we're doing a much better job of tracking ourselves through history, particularly from Stonewall onward," said About Face Theatre artistic director Andrew Volkoff. "But what about before Stonewall?"
Indeed, if you mention the Mattachine Society to most people, you'll likely get a blank stare or a shrug. Volkoff himself is slightly ashamed to admit that he didn't know much about that pioneering 1950s gay rights organization until he started planning to direct the Chicago premiere of Jon Marans' play The Temperamentals for About Face Theatre. The acclaimed 2009 off-Broadway drama is all about the founding of the Mattachine Society.
"This particular group of men got together in California to form an organization that was both political and socialto bring homosexuals together for both power and fellowship," Volkoff said. "The Mattachine Society is usually pointed to as the first successful attempt for gay men to come together in an organized fashionto put words to who we are and why we were an oppressed minority."
As a history play, The Temperamentals highlights the radicalized political environment that spawned the Mattachine Society ( many of the group's members self-identified as socialists or communists ). But Marans also wrote The Temperamentals to also be a love story focusing on two of the Mattachine Society's founding members, Harry Hay and emigre Rudi Gernreich.
"Their relationship largely remained a secret until Rudi Gernreich's death," Volkoff said. "Harry and Rudi, the fashion designer who created the 'monokini' bathing suit, were responsible for beginning the Mattachine Society and it's essentially a fantastic living history lesson."
The Temperamentals emphasizes not only how dangerous it was to have communist ideals back in the 1950s, but also to be a homosexual as wellparticularly with gay bars that were often raided by the police. Volkoff says The Temperamentals is great for emphasizing all those risks at the time.
"Part of the value of doing a play like this is an opportunity for all of our generations within the community to come together and learn something deeper about who we are and where we came from," Volkoff said.
The Temperamentals plays from Friday, Jan. 13, through Saturday, Feb. 18, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Previews are $10-$20, and regular-run tickets are $40 and $20 for students and seniors; call 773-975-8150 or visit AboutFaceTheatre.com .
Pride down under
Anyone who saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical either in Sydney, London, New York or on its North American tour will know what a massive spectacle it was onstage.
Featuring a jukebox score of '70s and '80s disco-pop hits, Priscilla was arguably more of an elaborate drag costume parade that passed in front of its high-tech LED-lit title bus set piece rather than its core story about of three drag artistes journeying through Australia's outback.
So to stage Priscilla in a Chicago storefront theater containing less than 100 seats might be seen as a logistical nightmare. Nonetheless, Pride Films and Plays is staging the first homegrown production of Priscilla as its first official big production for its newly rechristened Pride Arts Center.
"I saw it in London and I came away humming the costumes," admitted Pride Films and Plays executive director David Zak, who is co-directing the stage adaptation of the hit 1994 film with Derek Van Barham.
Zak also has lots of previous experience reconceiving big Broadway shows for smaller stages through his past work leading the former Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. So Zak was quick to point out how Priscilla at the Pride Arts Center will be a much more intimate affair focusing on the friendships and family dynamics of the characters.
Zak also confirmed that this version of Priscilla will also be different slightly in its script and song list than the one seen on Broadway and on tour due to rights issues. For instance, Zak said many of the London production references to Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue that were dropped in favor of Madonna for New York are now back in the licensed script.
Zak said Pride Films and Plays' Priscilla is also notable since Honey West is starring in the transgender role of Bernadettethe first time that a trans artist has actually inhabited the role ( see Jerry Nunn's interview with West in this issue ).
"We have a great cast up and down the ensemble," said Zak, happy to be working with so many veteran Chicago performers who auditioned specifically to be in this big show on a smaller scale. "It's just one of those crazy Chicago thingsyou know, too many people, too many songs, too many costumes and somehow it all pulls together."
Pride Films and Plays' Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical plays from Thursday, Jan. 12, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. General-admission tickets are $30 and $40 for reserved seats, and $10 for students, seniors or artists; call 800-737-0984 or visit PrideFilmsAndPlays.com .