This is one of a two-part series. Click here to hear from seven different writers on why it is crucial to make space for queer voices on stage.
In celebration of PRIDE month, we have been reflecting on the legacy of queer writers and their impact on the theatrical community, society, and in our own personal lives. Our theatrical community has been not only enriched but arguably created by the works of queer artists. Writers for the stage have played a key role in both spreading acceptance and educating on the queer experience. We thank the queer-identifying writers of yesterday, today, and tomorrow for speaking up and speaking out.
The stage has always been ahead of the curve in regard to offering queer representation. While queer characters have existed since the dawn of theater itself, explicitly queer characters have appeared on American popular stages as early as the 1920s. But these shows, more often than not written by straight writers, offered a flawed portrayal of these characters that viewed them through the lens of the moral standards of the day. By the sixties, this was changing, and out writers were creating out characters that challenged previous portrayals. There are famous examples such as Boys in the Band, and later The Normal Heart, but there were also many smaller productions performed at institutions like Caffe Cino, WOW Café Theatre, or by groups like Hot Peaches and Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. These shows emboldened activists, helping to communicate the human core of their work, and also offered a perspective on queer life that could also include joy and irreverence.
While some of these smaller shows have unfortunately been unacknowledged or lost to history, it is through writers that a direct lineage to this radical openness is maintained. As Keelay Gipson says: “As a queer, black boy in the middle of the country, I looked to the storytellers illuminating our history and our stories through the written word. James Baldwin, Tony Kushner, Robert O’Hara, Paula Vogel, Tarell Alvin McCraney—these writers shaped me as a person and as a dramatist. Their brave work could illuminate for folks like me—not yet out of the closet or sure of their voice, not yet living in a time of radical acceptance—how to build, unapologetically, a life in the theater telling queer stories.” Today, many companies such as Diversionary Theatre in San Diego and The Theater Offensive in Boston are carrying on the tradition of centering queer narratives on the stage. Contemporary theatergoers are also revisiting the work of queer writers like María Irene Fornés, who’s work has never achieved the level of recognition that its influence merits.
For queer people, seeing one’s experience reflected onstage – particularly when that representation is housed in authentic characters grappling with real human problems – can be a necessary balm for the hurt of living in a hostile society. In March of this year, President of Jujamcyn Theaters Jordan Roth presented Tony Kushner with the DGF Madge Evans & Sidney Kingsley Award for Excellence in Theater for his body of work and for work yet to come. Roth described what it felt like to be a young queer person encountering Angels in America as a “soon-to-be-out seventeen-year-old:”
“…My friends and I passed around his writing like secret sacred texts. Passages underlined, sentences highlighted, questions/hopes/prayers scribbled in the margins. Devouring everything we could find that he ever wrote, said or even considered. Those lucky enough to have been witness to a production, to have received the word directly, regaled the rest with tales of magic made manifest.”
So many shows had and continue to have tremendous impact on the heartscape of the nation. In honor of this ripple effect, we decided to maintain a chronological list of some of the pieces written by queer writers that have helped shine a light on the community and those that are continuing to challenge the sense of what it means to be queer in America.
Over the last several decades, we’ve seen the emergence of thrilling, heart-breaking, joyful, rich stories by and about women, trans people, and people of color, led by writers who have refused to have their own experiences written out of queer history. This is a tribute to the seminal works that have helped American theater get to where it is today AND an invitation to the next generation to help steer the ship, using theater as a launchpad for larger conversations about the LGBTQIA+ community and intersectionality in America.
Because this list captures only a fraction of the many groundbreaking, illuminating pieces that queer artists have made, we welcome your suggestions in the comments below:
- Mart Crowley – The Boys in the Band (1968)
- María Irene Fornés – Fefu and Her Friends (1977)
- Harvey Fierstein – Torch Song Trilogy (1978)
- Jane Chambers – Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980)
- Larry Kramer – The Normal Heart (1985)
- Kate Bornstein – Hidden: A Gender (1989)
- Tony Kushner – Angels in America (1991)
- William Finn and James Lapine – Falsettos (1992)
- Terrence McNally – Love! Valor! Compassion! (1994)
- John Cameron Mitchell – Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998)
- Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper – Kinky Boots (2012)
- Tarell Alvin McCraney – Choir Boy (2012)
- Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori – Fun Home (2013)
- Paula Vogel – Indecent (2015)
- Taylor Mac – A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2016)
- Basil Kreimendahl – Orange Julius (2017)
- Donja R. Love – Sugar in our Wounds (2018)
- Michael R. Jackson – Strange Loop (2019)
We are happy for this canon to grow, for “secret, sacred texts” to be made known, and for new generations of queer writers to have their voices heard. That is certainly something to be proud of.
The DGF Staff
P.S. If you think there is an important work about the queer experience written by a queer writer that should be on this list, please leave it in a comment below!