I had dropped out of the State University College at New Paltz and was working as a janitor in Binghamton City Hall in the spring of 1975 while my sister Leslie was performing in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum” for the Binghamton Civic Theater. After the short run ended, Charlie, who was the lead in “Forum”, decided to direct a play called Boys in the Band, which had played on Broadway in 1968, and was made into a movie in 1970. If you’ve looked at either hyperlink, you’d know that this was a play featuring seven (or eight?) gay men at a dinner party.
Charlie had a casting call, and given my need for greater mental stimulation, I decided to try out. As it turns out there was a specifically black character in the play, and that I was the only black person to try out. (Though Charlie said that I would have been cast regardless.)
We started rehearsals. Some of the cast (at least five) were in fact gay, but at least two of us (a guy named Bill, who played the lead, and myself) were not. So Charlie thought that we all ought to go to a gay bar, as some sort of bonding experience. I did not know there WAS a gay bar in Binghamton, but there it be, a couple blocks from my old high school. It was an interesting experience having a guy (or two) hit on me.
We also went to at least one party at either Charlie’s or cast member Jeffrey’s house, and it was a fascinating mix of the banal (pretty normal conversations about weather and whatnot) with the stereotypical (music by Barbra and Judy).
Bill used to give me a ride home after rehearsals and we’d talk about the experience of working on the play, what surprised us, what preconceived notions we might have had and how they had been challenged.
One of the things that the script required was for me to kiss my “lover” – it was a peck on the lips- played by a guy named Mickey. It was difficult for about 3/4s of the rehearsal time, but finally, I decided, “I am an actor, I can do this.” (Though, in fact, I hadn’t been in a play since 1970, when I was in high school.) In any case, in the last week of rehearsal, I finally managed to do the kiss.
Near the end of the play, Bill had a lengthy monologue which he was having a hard time learning. Charlie got impatient with him during the later rehearsals. My character is “passed out” on the floor for about 10 minutes during this time, and I found that I was learning Bill’s lines. So during the rehearsals (but not during the actual performance), I’d whisper lines to him, which I believe helped.
The play was performed for a couple weekends. Another of the things the script called for was for Jeffrey’s character to take a shower. So, he took off his clothes and feigned taking a shower. I never saw the scene until the play opened (my character had not yet arrived at the party), but it garnered audible gasps each time. (I thought it was a bit gratuitous.)
The review in the newspaper never even reviewed the performances, but instead noted the play as a “statement” of some sort.
My high school friend Carol (not to be confused with my-now wife Carol) later tells me about this dialogue with our mutual HS friend.
Lois: It’s too bad about Roger.
Carol: What ABOUT Roger?
Lois: That he’s gay.
Carol: He’s not gay!
And apparently, the pastor at a church I used to attend thought so, too, as he gave me definite vibes.
That was the first time that I was aware that some people thought I was gay. It was definitely a learning experience in being “the other” from a different perspective.
I remember there were some (presumably) straight actors in that same period who were stereotyped for their orientation in a movie or play. So other performers were wary of taking on such roles. Someone from Martin Sheen’s high school recently told me that Sheen came back some years later, and the faculty adviser said that Sheen could be asked about almost anything…except about that highly rated mid-1970s TV movie called, “That Certain Summer,” in which he played a gay man. I often wonder just how much progress we’ve made since then.
And, coincidentally: For all you baseball fans, watch Carson, Jai, Kyan, Ted, and Thom kick off the start of a fabulous new season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, when the Fab Five visit the World Champion Boston Red Sox. Tuesday (tomorrow) at 10 p.m. on Bravo.