’The Temperamentals’ initiates a look back at Boston’s gay culture

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 28, 2012

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, in collaboration with Mass Humanities, is hosting two post-performance panel discussions about issues raised by its production of Jon Marans' play "The Temperamentals." The first "Improper Bostonians: The History of the Movement," is scheduled for April 12; the second panel, "Improper Bostonians: Where Are We Now?" is set for April 26.

"This play is bound to stimulate thoughts and reactions from audiences about gay civil rights," said Cheryl Jacques, 50, a Boston-based LGBT civil rights leader who will be moderating both panels.

Jacques, who came out while serving as a Massachusetts State Senator, is a lawyer married to Jennifer Chrisler, who serves as executive director of the Family Equity Council, a 30-year old organization whose mission is to "connect, support and represent LGBT parents and their children." The couple live in Newton with their twin sons.

"Since the play deals with a historical time - the 1950s - many younger people attending the play will never know how scary that era was. So the panels have been designed to address these anticipated questions and reactions, and to help those attending to put them in historical context," Jacques said.

Getting perspective

Jacques noted that the panelists will contrast the timeframe depicted in the play - known for its rampant discrimination against gays-with the present day, as gay activists, no longer closeted, engage in lobbying for their civil rights.

"Looking back gives us a perspective," Jacques said. "We bring the focus up to date, in terms of the marriage debate and the angst that many of us are feeling as we see states like Maine and California move forward with ratifying marriage equality, only to witness that right taken away by recall votes. Lyric Stage audiences will be eager to engage in these discussions."

"Improper Bostonians," is the title of a book about Boston’s gay population (not to be confused with a Boston-based glossy magazine of the same name), published in the late 1990s by Beacon Press. It was written and edited by members of The History Project, an all-volunteer group that conducts research on lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgenders in Massachusetts.

Neal Kane, a panelist and one of the chairs of The History Project, stressed that "much of the historical record about the gay community in Massachusetts has been obscured or destroyed over the years, which is why The History Project is so intent on preserving our LGBT history."

Racing against time

In 1996, the group exhibited many of their archival photographs and other materials chronicling the lives of gay Bostonians at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.

"That exhibit proved to be one of the largest draws of any exhibit held at the BPL," Kane said. "One of the lessons of the past has taught us that if you’re not in a historical record, you don’t exist. Since Boston is so synonymous with American history, it is our goal to have a permanent home - to house our archives - so that we can firmly establish our lasting presence here."
Kane will be joined on the panel by two other members of The History Project.

"We will be sharing historical stories that many may not know of," Kane said. "There’s a story, for example, about the late Prescott Townsend, a Boston blueblood, who traces his roots to the Mayflower landing. He helped to form the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society, depicted in the play. Only he went about broadcasting it in a radical, outspoken way that quite frankly made people very nervous. He was labeled as ’too radical’ at a time when everyone else was quietly subversive and clandestine."

In 1943 he was convicted of an "unnatural and lascivious act," and was sentenced to 18 months in the Massachusetts House of Corrections on Deer Island.

The History Project will display a small portion of their archives at the Lyric Stage for public viewing.

"We are racing against time in our efforts to preserve our local gay history," Kane added. "We were trying to arrange an oral history of a transgendered senior who was very private and who had much to tell us, but she died before we could capture her stories. It was devastating to us."

Optimistic about the future

Despite the portents of the past depicted in "The Temperamentals," gay activist Jacques said she’s optimistic about the future.

"No civil rights struggle has ever had it easy," she said. "We’ve had rough days in the past, and we’ll have rough days going forward. Maryland recently passed marriage equality, for example, and there’s already been talk about repealing it. But I feel, in my lifetime, we’ll see it accepted throughout these United States."

Change happens when people rally to make it happen, Jacques said.

"I have two dear friends who are in their late 70s," Jacques said. "They’ve told me, never in their wildest imaginations would they have envisioned being out, married, in a retirement community, accepted and embraced by their neighbors. Back in the day they had to conceal their relationship and were afraid, for fear of reprisals, of being persecuted because of their gay identities. Today they are not living that way. They came from backgrounds depicted in the play. One of the women almost entered into a marriage with a gay man to keep her cover. Now they are legally married in Massachusetts."

Neal Kane added that the men in the play give us hope to face the tough work that lies ahead.

"These men were brave," Kane said. "They survived the witch hunts. They survived the cold war. They paved the way for all of us to enjoy our liberties."

The two post-performance panels at the Lyric Stage of Boston, co-sponsored by Mass Humanities, with Cheryl Jacques as moderator, are as follows: April 12: Improper Bostonians: The History of the Movement. Panelists from The History Project: Neal Kane, Elizabeth Bouvier, Stephen Nonack. April 26: Improper Bostonians: Where Are We Now?. Panelists: Abe Rybeck, Executive Artistic Director, The Theatre Offensive and Rev. Gretchen Grimshaw, Episcopal Parish of St. Paul , Newton Highlands.

For additional information about "The Temperamentals," visit the Lyric Stage website.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.