‘Herstory/History’ is our story
By Leela Ginelle,Â PQ Monthly To coincide with Pride, Portlandâ€™s Defunkt Theatre will present â€œHerstory/History,â€ a coupling of two landmark plays: â€œThe Childrenâ€™s Hour,â€ by Lillian Hellman, and â€œThe Boys in the Band,â€ by Mart Crowley. The plays are notable for being the first successful mainstream theater projects to address, respectively, lesbian and gay life. Matthew Kern, one of Defunktâ€™s three artistic directors, says the productions are also in keeping with the companyâ€™s explorations of gay content and gender politics â€” such as their staging of a mixed gender version of David Mametâ€™s â€œGlengarry Glen Ross,â€ and last yearâ€™s mounting of Chuck Meeâ€™s â€œFire Island.â€ â€œWe donâ€™t necessarily consciously seek out gay content, but as our artistic directors are two women and a gay man, we tend to be drawn to material that explores those issues,â€ Kern says. â€œItâ€™s been really gratifying to see increasing numbers of folks from the LGBTQ community attending Defunkt shows over the past couple of years. This project is one that we feel will really speak to a lot of us.â€ The productions will run through Portlandâ€™s Pride Week, with extra performances of â€œBoys in the Bandâ€ during that time. To help fund this event, Defunkt has started a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com, where donors can help out while receiving prizes ranging from signed posters to karaoke nights with cast members. â€œThe Childrenâ€™s Hour,â€ the older of the two plays, revolves around a rumor that two headmistresses at a boarding school are involved in a lesbian affair, upending the womenâ€™s careers and lives. The play â€” Hellmanâ€™s first to be staged â€” debuted on Broadway in 1934, a time when even mentioning homosexuality on stage was a criminal offense in New York. â€œIt was rare enough to have a play by a female playwright succeed in the commercial theater in those days,â€ Kern says, â€œand if you add the provocative subject matter, itâ€™s amazing that she was able to make it happen.â€ Despite its incendiary content, the play was a success, running two years on Broadway. It was banned in several cities â€” including Boston, Chicago, and London â€” but went on to be adapted several times on film. â€œThe Boys in the Bandâ€ was first staged off-Broadway in 1968. It dramatizes a group of gay men attending a birthday party in Manhattan. While the subject matter might sound unremarkable today, at the time it was revolutionary. â€œHere, right out in the open, were a cross-section of out gay men who had formed a kind of family of choice while facing the challenges of being gay in that time,â€ Kern says. â€œIt was right on the eve of Stonewall.â€ â€œThe Boys in the Bandâ€ also inspired a movie in 1970, directed by William Friedkin. â€œHerstory/History,â€ running May 10-June 15, offers a unique opportunity to see these groundbreaking works in person â€” and reflect on our history. â€œThese are plays that many of us know of,â€ Kern says, â€œbut are rarely produced these days, and yet without them so much of what has followed would not have been possibleâ€¦. They are plays that are sometimes dismissed by younger gay people because they are of another era, and we like to think that weâ€™ve moved beyond the challenges that the characters in these plays face. And yes, it is much easier to live as an out person in 2013 than it was in 1934 or 1968. But some of the self loathing and the shame that these characters struggle to overcome is alive and well, whether [or not] itâ€™s always comfortable for us to admit it.â€ The program also offers audiences the chance to have two distinct theater-going experiences. â€œThe Childrenâ€™s Hourâ€ will be staged at Defunktâ€™s home venue, The Backdoor Theater, on SE Hawthorne. â€œThe Boys in the Band,â€ however, will be mounted at a â€œsite specificâ€ venue, which has yet to be determined. Kern credits director Jon Kretzu with the idea to produce the plays in tandem and at different venues. â€œJonâ€™s decision to stage â€˜The Boys in the Bandâ€™ in an alternate, site-specific location is also going to have an impact on audiences,â€ Kern says. â€œYou will be a guest at the party, not just an audience sitting in a theater. Itâ€™s an experience unlike most of us have ever had before, and a really exciting style of performance to bring to Portland.â€ While â€œHerstory/Historyâ€ offers audiences a rich cultural experience, Kern believes it will be an emotionally enriching one, as well. â€œI think audiences of all kinds â€” gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc. â€” will see a lot of themselves in these characters,â€ he says. â€œThe plays offer a wonderful chance to come together as a community and look at and promote a discussion of how far weâ€™ve come, how some things remain unchanged, and what kind of world we want to build for ourselves in the future.â€ â€œHerstory/Historyâ€ runs May 10-June 15 in Portland. For more information about the plays and the fundraising campaign, visit defunktheatre.com.
Bjorn Anderson, Matthew Kerrigan, and Jeffrey Arrington are Donald, Harold, and Michael in â€œThe Boys in the Band.â€ Photo By Andrew Klaus