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‘217 Boxes’ play recalls pivotal moment in LGBT rights

Dr. Henry Anonymous made memorable appearance at 1972 panel discussion

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217 Boxes play, gay news, Washington Blade

Derek Luci in ‘217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous.’ (Photo by Paula Court)

‘217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous’
 
Baryshnikov Arts Center, Jerome Robbins Theater
 
450 West 37th St., New York
 
7:30 p.m. nightly through May 11

John Fryer is not a household name, though he’s considered among the five most impactful activists for LGBT civil rights and is directly at the center of one of the biggest civil rights events in the U.S.

Under the guise of Dr. Henry Anonymous, the psychiatrist masqueraded himself in a mask and through a voice modulator appeared on a homosexuality panel with late gay rights pioneers Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, which helped to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

The events of what transpired are showcased in the new play “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous,” written by Ain Gordon. Equality Forum is presenting the show at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City through May 11.

“John Fryer first came on my radar about 20 years ago, but at that point, I don’t know if I fully understood his impact,” says Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum. “Roughly two years ago, Ain Gordon was commissioned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to do a play about a figure who went unrecognized and as it turns out, that’s where the 217 boxes of John Fryer’s archives are stored.”

The playwright learned of Fryer’s story during a two-year residency at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania while he was searching for incidents about personal battles for public liberty, and specifically wanted to find something LGBT-related. He knew immediately this story was what he was looking for.

The Equality Forum was impressed with the play and decided it was something it wanted to stage it as part of the Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, which is being held this week in New York City as well, as it’s the 45th anniversary of the declassification. Current medical director Saul Levin is the first openly gay man to head the Association.

“The reviews speak for themselves, but it’s a remarkable play about a period of time, and what’s interesting to me is that it’s also being presented in the same month that ‘Boys in the Band’ is being performed, as they are both in the same time period,” Lazin says. “One is about the impact of internal homophobia and the other is about the conditions that existed and the heroism of John Fryer in stepping forward and creating a tremendous change.”

The play is about who Fryer was and it’s answered through three different characters the playwright found in the 217 boxes.

“Ain, who happens to be a gay man, had not previously done a play around gay subject matter. He’s known for his monologues and what he decided to do was go through those 217 boxes he found to inform him who John Fryer really was,” Lazin says. “The first of the characters was Alfred Gross (played by Derek Lucci), an early Civil Rights activist, who helped gay men who had problems with the law. He interfaced with John because very few psychiatrists would come into a court of law to discuss these things.”

The second person introduced in the play is Katherine M. Luder (played by Laura Esterman), Fryer’s secretary, a spinster who worked for him from age 67-91.

“One of the remarkable things you learn from her is that John was likely one of the very first psychiatrists in the country to provide psychological counseling for HIV patients who were bereaved,” Lazin says.

The third character is Fryer’s father, Ercel (played by Ken Marks), and he’s there to explain his son’s upbringing and what led to him delivering this memorable speech. It’s learned Fryer was raised in rural Kentucky, became a graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and was discharged from its residency in psychiatry when the truth about his homosexuality came out.

Learning about this man, Lazin notes, is wildly important for the future and he’s happy the play is doing so well.

“If we want to build a sustainable bridge to the future, we need to build a bridge empowered by our past, and we have that past, but we’re just not telling it,” Lazin says. “This is an opportunity to learn about that past.”

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Theater

‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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Theater

‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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Theater

A look back at the best in 2021 D.C. theater

Stages sprung back to life after shutdowns

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Shakespeare Theatre Company reopened in 2021 with ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

When everything was closed, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) took a chance by reopening in the spring of 2021. 

Theater lovers longed for something, and after a year of unquestionably defensible darkness, (STC) opened the doors of the Harman with Donmar Warehouse’s gripping production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones. 

D.C.’s first return to indoor theater involved masks and social distancing, as well as a stage without live actors and an audience seated onstage. It was a resounding success. 

But “Blindness” was a blip on the early summer radar. Most of the year was awash with streamed productions, particularly one-person shows. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre, out actor Ryan J. Haddad doesn’t hold back. In his refreshingly direct autographical one-man play “Hi, Are you Single?” 

In a January interview with the Blade, Haddad said, “The show begins with my shorts around my ankles and I’m rubbing the crotch of my boxer briefs, the audience sees my walker,” Haddad explains matter-of-factly. “I’m telling you from the start that these are the terms here. If you can’t get on board with me being disabled and horny AF then you’ll have a hard time with this play.” 

Other especially memorable streamed productions included Theater Alliance’s production of busy playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle,” a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. Ingeniously directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. 

The innovative work imagines a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

Throughout the summer months, Olney Theatre Center offered myriad, well -attended outdoor performances, including admission-free nights in August titled “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences were asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.”

But the big story of latter 2021 was the citywide reopening of indoor performance venues brought about in large part by vaccinations and audience’s willingness to don masks and present proof of vaccination at the door. In addition to audiences, working theaters have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for performers and theater staff. More theaters are expected to follow suit as they resume operation. 

When autumn rolled around, curtains went up. Arena Stage opened with “Toni Stone” (through Oct. 3). Written by Lydia R. Diamon, it’s the remarkable story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, also making her the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league in the 1950s. Signature Theatre reopened with a newly reimagined interpretation of “Rent” directed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. 

And in no time, national tours of big Broadway musicals busted into town with movies to musicals “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman” (through Jan. 2) at the National and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Kennedy Center.  

While many beloved holiday shows returned to familiar stages in December, some new works have arrived, too, including Studio Theatre’s “Flight” (through February), an immersive installation created by Scottish innovators Vox Motus and designed by Jamie Harrison. It’s described as “an invitation to bear witness to the personal stories of two of the 300,000 displaced children who make unaccompanied journeys every year,” “Flight” is the story orphaned brothers who set off on an arduous journey across Europe in search of freedom and safety. 

There are no live actors in this production. Audience members experience the play from individual booths wearing headphones and viewing a handcrafted diorama in which the story unfolds in intimate miniature. 

Despite herculean efforts, things aren’t entirely back to normal – far from it. Currently in New York, newly reopened Broadway shows are cancelling performances citing backstage outbreaks of coronavirus and variants as the culprit. How things play out in our town in the coming year, remains to be seen.

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