When Straight Actors Play Gay Characters

Rumors on the interwebs suggest that Brad Pitt wants to take on the role of a gay man in an upcoming film in order to a) develop more depth as an actor or b) defy his homophobic mother.  When it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, we’re usually clear on the actor’s sexual orientation regardless of their role; theatre is a different story when actors have more anonymity / less fame.  Some of the most coveted, virtuosic, and memorable theatrical roles have been about effeminate or gay men: Cabaret’s Emcee, Midsummer’s Puck, half the cast of Rent, Angels in America, La Cage Aux Folles, The Normal Heart’s Ned Weeks, and The Boy From Oz’s Peter Allen.  Over the years, many of the important queer characters in these plays have been played by straight men.  I’ve become perplexed about straight men playing gay characters, not because of how they represent gay men on stage, but how they perform off-stage.

I’ve recently witnessed several instances of straight men compassionately representing gay or queer men on stage.  In May I watched an adaptation of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.  The undergrad men who played the lead roles of David and Giovanni were so compelling and their on-stage intimacy was beautiful.  The story of cross-cultural queer love that finds difficulty in naming itself was brilliantly portrayed, and I was transfixed throughout the dress rehearsal.  But when it ended, the lead actors smacked hands, chest pounded, and grunted to congratulate each other on a successful rehearsal, and I was immediately removed from the fantasy of their performance.  Though the characters they played were not stereotypically gay (read effeminate), they were intensely physically intimate; it was as if these two young men needed to re-establish their macho-ness once the show was over through heteromasculine gestures of limited and brief contact.

More recently, I watched Hit The Wall in Chicago, a re-telling of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 New York.  The show was successful in depicting a range of nuanced characters of different class backgrounds, races, genders, and sexual orientations and I was transported to an intensely queer West Village of the 60s.  At an after party for the show I found the gay actors as sweet or fierce as the queer men they played on stage.  But the straight man who played a sweetly awkward man coming out of the closet was strangely bro-ish, flirting intently with a woman cast member.  Yes, I guess that means he’s just a great actor; but again, it is a rough break with the lovely fantasy of the stage that I left the theatre with.

What was more jarring was a more recent event; at a fundraiser one of the actors from Hit The Wall was working at a kissing booth.  The kissing booth was not doing particularly well so my friend decided to help out, dropped a dollar in the jar, and leaned in to the man for a kiss.  He pecked my friend on the lips and pulled away when my friend’s tongue touched his lips saying, “I can’t do that!”  My friend and I had witnessed the woman at the kissing booth use tongue freely; naturally we expected the man to do the same.  Yes some men are homophobic, understood.  But you expect that a man who has played the role of a gay man in a play about the gay liberation movement might at least be ok with kissing another man in the name of godamm charity.

The fantastic space of the stage is an important place to witness same-gender intimacy, live and in person.  When straight actors break with that fantasy, part of the queer magic of the stage is also gone.

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Academic, activist, artist. Believes in glitter, neon, paisleys, sequins, mehndi, mohawks, dessert, materiality, and feelings. Abstract, but not obscure.

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