I’m writing this on June 25, 2023. It’s Pride Day in New York City. Every LGBTQ+ person is on their own journey. The path is rarely easy. The destination is rewarding. Chosen family can be as valuable as blood family. I am lucky to have allies on both fronts.
A couple of years ago I wrote a three-character play called Two Henrys, about a conservative Midwest family dealing with grief and guilt, set in Florida at the twilight of the worst days of AIDS and at the dawn of marriage equality. It’s a comedy that begins with a funeral and ends with a wedding. I thought I was writing a period piece about progress. About the seemingly quaint ideas of coming out and saying “gay” out loud. Now, our freedom is under fire, particularly in Florida. (I wrote the first draft of the play in 2016.)
It didn’t occur to me that I was an activist as a playwright. I thought I was an entertainer. I worried that Two Henrys was becoming obsolete in its discussion of the tough task of coming out of the closet in an intolerant America. Like my play Alabama Story — about book banning, censorship and persecuted librarians — Two Henrys is still sadly necessary. I want to be produced, of course, but I wish these plays were snapshots of the past rather than portraits of a current crisis. But history repeats.
I remember a time when gay playwrights steered away from characterizing their works as “gay plays,” for various reasons. I got that. I felt that. I’m leaning into it now, because history demands it. Representation of marginalized communities matters. People learn and grow through stories; and maybe some kid who was thinking they were better off dead than out will be healed seeing themselves on stage — or maybe a loved one will understand them better for having seen a play or read a YA novel about queerness. (The Trevor Project has resources for queer kids in need or at risk.)
In recent years, Two Henrys enjoyed development from the brave producer Keith Cromwell at Red Mountain Theatre Company, which produced a public workshop staging in (conservative) Birmingham, Alabama. (Stephen Mangina, Holly Croney Dikeman and Carole Cook Armistead appeared in the workshop, directed by David Callaghan.) The weekend featured a talkback by members of the LGBTQ community and the HIV medical community. A mother in the audience wept at the loss of her son; a doctor spoke of the progress made since the play’s 2012 setting.
At a reading of the play at Pioneer Theatre Company in (conservative) Salt Lake City, parents of a gay son spoke to me with tears in their eyes and said, “Boy, we sure have lived some of this play.”
A producer unrelated to those who have given the play readings told me, “I can’t risk alienating my audience — they like Neil Simon.” The producer didn’t read the play, obviously, because the script is absolutely in the tradition of Neil Simon, Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein, Lanford Wilson.
Two Henrys was lucky to get development elsewhere: from actress-producer Lesley Fera at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, California; James Valcq at Third Avenue Playhouse in (conservative) Door County, Wisconsin, where the play’s characters have their roots; Don Farrell at Actors Theatre of Indiana, in (conservative) suburban Indianapolis, where one of the characters is from; Roy Steinberg at Cape May Playhouse in New Jersey; by Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar at Hudson Stage Company in Westchester, New York.
Two Henrys was also a two-time semi-finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.
Cocky as it may sound, I think the time for further development or “listening opportunities” is over. Yes, let’s have a table read and ask questions, but its current refined draft needs three weeks of rehearsal toward a full production somewhere from a fearless producer who sees the perennial importance of saying “gay.”
I see now that through my writing I am indeed an activist. But one whose work will make you cry and laugh and look to the light of the future, as we all do on the annual Pride Day.
Two Henrys is dedicated to my late friend Douglas Hugh Wright, Terrence McNally, my parents and my husband Jeff Talbott.