‘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.”