Why Representation Matters

Visibility in media is important. Visibility in media normalizes. It’s an unfortunate quirk of our society, but it’s true. We put a lot of value in the fictional narratives we surround ourselves with. Whether it’s a book you’re reading, Netflix you’re chilling with or even a play you’re watching. We invest ourselves in characters. They become real to us. They become part of our daily lives, and it’s a simple statement of fact that when that’s true, it’s inevitable that we begin to see people like those characters as invaluable, natural parts of this world.

For LGBTQ individuals, visibility in media has been something that has been fought for since before even the gay rights movement. As an actor, director and playwright, my practical experience with media is mostly with theatre, and as a gay man, representing marginalized groups in theatre is my cause. That is why when I had the opportunity to assistant direct Mart Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band” for Pandora Productions, Louisville’s LGBTQ theatre company, I couldn’t pass it up.

2015-2016-Boys-Band-Small-e1443623092623“The Boys in the Band” is significant because it is one of the first plays to talk about homosexual men in a very open, non-coded way. I will spare you the details – look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested because it’s pretty fascinating – but when I say “coded” I speak of countless films and plays before and after “Boys” where the existence of homosexuality was only ever subtly implied. It was so subtle that unless you knew that that’s how places like Broadway and Hollywood worked, you would never know the queer characters were even there. As appreciated as that is for queer individuals who do notice it, that’s not true representation or visibility. Things are better, but unfortunately, this practice that has been going on for over a century still occurs today. “Boys” is what began to change all that. For one of the first times, the inner lives, sexual relationships and friendships of gay men were discussed not only openly but in depth. That’s huge.

The play is set and opened a year before Stonewall, which for those of you who don’t know, was the real beginning of the gay rights movement. It’s a snapshot of what was boiling under the surface for a social group that had been marginalized for so long right before the inevitable volcanic eruption. There’s a lot of ugliness found in the play. You really should watch it to see what the playwright is discussing, but he is bringing up internalized homophobia that until that brick – again, a Stonewall reference – was thrown, really didn’t have a lot of places to go other than, unfortunately, at gay people themselves and their friends.

Because of that outward and self-directed hatred, the play does receive some criticism. Most people’s reactions when I tell them I’m assisting with this play are that they don’t like it. That it’s so mean. I’m not going to try and dissuade anyone of that. It is. Many of the boys in the band are not likable characters. As assistant director, I’ve gotten to know each of the characters so well over this process that I think I understand them, their backgrounds, their psyches, their motivations. There’s a lot exposed in this play that frankly, isn’t pretty, but we as queer individuals need to face that in ourselves sometimes. We need to love ourselves. It’s definitely been a long, uphill battle, but I love myself. I see a little of myself in each of the characters, most especially in some of the not-so-good ways. I see my friends in them too. I like and love these characters for that, for affording me that insight. Several of the characters have good qualities and moments of victory that I think the audience will like, will find relatable and enjoy as well.

The fact of the matter is that when society pretends your identity and feelings do not exist, there is no proper, healthy outlet for the tremendous pressure and stress. That’s what this play so brilliantly discusses, and I think it is of the utmost importance that gay and straight people alike see visible, queer characters in plays like “The Boys in the Band” in order to know that despite our flaws – perhaps even because of them – we are able to love. VT

“The Boys in the Band” has performances at The Henry Clay Theatre January 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., January 16 at 2 p.m. and January 17 at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door. They can be purchased in advance at pandoraprods.org.