Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots—those six pivotal days of unrest that dramatically accelerated the fight for LGBTQ+ civil rights. But LGBTQ+ activism was alive long before that galvanizing moment in New York City.
Making Gay History: Before Stonewall, a new production from NYU Steinhardt’s Educational Theatre program, brings those stories to the stage February 28—March 8 at the Provincetown Playhouse (133 MacDougal Street). The production gathers oral histories from activists and witnesses to history who laid the groundwork for the LGBTQ+ movement.
Creator Joe Salvatore, a clinical associate professor in Educational Theatre, adapted the production from Eric Marcus’ award-winning book Making Gay History: The Half Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights, which was later developed into a popular podcast of the same name. For the two editions of his 1992 book, Marcus recorded interviews with more than 100 people, including movement pioneers Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, and Frank Kameny, as well as trans icons Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
“Many people have no idea there was a history before Stonewall,” says Marcus. “I think it will be revelatory for people attending the show to hear the inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking stories of people who lived and fought for our rights during times that were far more difficult than our own.”
Salvatore translated those histories into a script, which draws heavily on “verbatim performance”—a style of acting that reproduces a person’s speech patterns, gestures, and more—in order to bring history to life in a truly physical way.
“It is such a privilege to work with Eric Marcus and his archive,” says Salvatore. “By adapting the podcast into a verbatim documentary theatre performance, we have been able to investigate the intricacies of speech patterns and cadence of the original speakers, and our discoveries through that process have revealed new layers of understanding about these trailblazers and their experiences.”
Salvatore also cast “against type,” where possible, so that actors sometimes portray a different gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity or age than their own. “This choice allows actors to investigate the experiences that are different from their own and asks the audience to hear stories in a different way than they might have come to expect,” he says.
“The way Joe works makes for incredibly powerful theater,” adds Marcus, who’s been attending rehearsals. “I watched the young actor who plays Wendell Sayers, the first African American attorney to work in the Colorado State Attorney General’s office back in the 1950s. Referencing my original audio tapes and using Joe’s methodology, the actor was able to embrace who Wendell was and let Wendell speak through him. It was haunting and moving to watch his transformation and to hear Wendell share his life with us as if he were there on stage.”
Tickets are available for purchase via the NYU Box Office.