In 2010, Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals opened off-Broadway to great acclaim. Adding a chapter to the Gay Rights Movement many thought started with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, The Temperamentals details the embryonic stages of The Mattachine Society, an anonymous gathering of gay men who went there for encouragement and validation. Founded in 1950 by lovers Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich (as well as Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull) The Mattachine Society offered refuge and respite to men who were terrified their orientation would be revealed and their lives would be ruined. Hay, a member of the American Communist Party, was well acquainted with the process of running an organization that fell under the radar. Indeed, their compulsive attention to emulating the behavior of straight men, easily suggests undercover spies. Interlopers amidst a toxic hotbed of hostile straight boys. Set Designer and
Director Bruce Coleman has created a series of drab grey screens and generic furniture, rhyming thematically with the dispassionate spin on virility so popular with American males. The screens are also used for projecting slides appropriate to content, enriching our grasp of milieu and evolving zeitgeist. Temperamentals riffs at length on that elusive enigma we call gender, and how it manifests in same-gender sexual attachment. The male actors also play women in various stages of camp. Hay discovers after wrapping mother’s shawl over his smart pinstripes, that he doesn’t want to take it off. Manhood becomes less punishment than privilege. A phenomenon with bright plumage rather than ashen weaves.
More than anything (at least at the outset) the fear of gay men living in the 1950’s comes through. (Not that we’re out of the woods yet.) It’s not easy for the founding members of Mattachine to enlist confederates. When one of their members is arrested in a tearoom for public lewdness, they convince him a trial would provide the perfect opportunity to generate sympathy from the public. This was a ballsy proposition that could just as easily have backfired. As Hay and Gernreich explore romance with each other, they also learn about survival techniques used by celebrity closet cases of their day, such as Nigel Butler and Vincente Minelli. The Temperamentals culminates in an actual meeting of The Mattachine, where we, the audience members are participants.
Leaving the theater after The Temperamentals I wondered if there might have been a better way to tell this story. If plays like The Laramie Project or A Raisin in the Sun might do a better job of condemning intolerance and bigotry. I love the idea that we can share our history and culture with a larger audience that maybe doesn’t understand why we might need to use codified terms like : “Temperamental” or “Family” or “A Friend of Dorothy.” That pays tribute to the heroes of our tribe and the courage it must have taken to step up (even covertly) in dangerous times. Maybe with the increasing number of suicides, we need to be reminded that action is sometimes necessary, especially when the situation seems so bleak. Uptown Players proudly presents The Temperamentals playing October 7th – 23rd, 2011. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, TX 75219. 214-219-2718 www.uptownplayers.org