Stage Lights and Storm Clouds

At 9 PM on four upcoming April evenings in New York City, a rarely seen one-act play written more than four decades ago by pioneering gay playwright Doric Wilson is going to be revived at the Laurie Beechman Theatre at 407 West 42nd Street. It’s called "And He Made a Her,"
And I’m pleased to say that it arrives heralded by the title graphic that Doric asked me to create for its New York revival.

As you may recall from previous blog posts, I love creating promo graphics for stage plays. If I can’t be out there wallowing in greasepaint myself, I can at least have fun drawing pictures about the finished products!

Anyway, the dates of this four-performance run are April 6, 13, 20, and 26. Call 212 695-6909 for reservations.

Twice before I’ve provided promotional graphics for plays by Doric, most recently for the TOSOS II production of A Perfect Relationship. But it’s the poster I drew for the 1982 production of Street Theater, Doric’s re-telling of events and archetypal personalities surrounding the historic Stonewall Riots of 1969, that is stirring up memories today.

That particular rendition of Doric’s play was staged under Ken Cook’s direction in a provocative venue: the downstairs portion of Greenwich Village’s legendary (and now long gone) gay meatmarket The Mineshaft (inspiration for "The Grease Gun," one of the haunts visited by the title character of my 1981 underground comic book story "Billy Goes Out"). On normal nights the cruising and on-premises coupling at the Mineshaft flowed unimpeded between the bar’s two levels, but with a play going on downstairs, some traffic had to be diverted. During Street Theater‘s run a locked door at the top of the bar’s narrow stairway guaranteed that no naked men would accidentally wander onto the stage to compete with actors for the attention of the clothed and mixed-gendered audience.

At right: a panel from "Billy Goes Out"

What a moment in time that was. Storm clouds were gathering over the Sexual Revolution, as then conceptualized, but few of us had begun coming to grips with their sinister import.

Soon the communal submersion in erotic abandon that swept the late-‘seventies gay subculture (at least in urban centers like New York City) would be undercut by a terrible epidemic. We can see the arc of that tragedy clearly now but few could then. Historical hindsight is frequently cruel, offering many instances of idealism being blindsided by even blinder realities.

By 1982 stirrings about a mysterious "gay cancer" had begun generating anxiety in the gay community, but a true appreciation of the illness’s nature and implications hadn’t fully taken hold when house lights dimmed at the Mineshaft for Doric’s Street Theater.

In its heavy-breathing way (a paradoxically tender way that those disinclined to question conventional heterosexual assumptions often find hard to comprehend), this was still a time of innocence for urban gay men. For several years, propelled by the exhilaration set in motion by the 1969 rebellion being recreated by Doric Wilson in stage terms, the guilt about sex that had long been imposed on gay people’s psyches had been losing its stranglehold. Long-bolted doors were being thrown open one after another.

Not the temporarily bolted door at the top of the Mineshaft’s basement stairs, though. That bolt was wisely kept in place while Doric’s show was in progress. As hip as anyone present was bound to be if he or she had been moved in the first place to venture downtown to see a gay play being staged at a club whose very walls dripped with notoriety, common sense was not being abandoned even if propriety was. The theatregoing vibe and the orgyroom vibe were unlikely to have meshed well during an intermission’s millings-about.

So two worlds were kept separate for a couple of hours each night at the Mineshaft. Those of us in the audience who were at ease in both of those worlds had to smile inwardly, though, at the soft, contrapuntal sounds of restless footsteps drifting downward from above the stage lights.

While a work of art unfolded in front of us, the Mineshaft’s normal round-robin of eroticism — made possible by the very historic event being dramatized in the work of art we were watching — proceeded without pause above our heads.

Being itself. Enjoying itself. Paying no heed to art.

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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