10 Gay Plays That Aren't Angels in America
On a warm Sunday in 2015 I found myself crying on a friend’s couch as we watched Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori accept their Tony Award for Fun Home. This was an unusual moment for a few reasons. I almost never cry (just ask my therapist), I almost never watch the Tonys, and a butch lesbian is almost never the protagonist of a Tony-winning musical. This victory for Fun Home cracked me open because I felt seen and represented by both the characters and the artists who brought them to life.
It was also around that time when I ran the LGBTQ group at my MFA program and posed the question “how many plays can you name with a LGBTQ main character whose storyline doesn’t end in suicide, AIDS, or a hate crime?”. Even we, a collective of informed queer theatre artists living in NYC, struggled to come up with more than a few. The reality is that our theatrical canon is full of queer pain and trauma and not much else. We grew up on a steady diet of narratives like Angels in America, RENT, Stop Kiss, Bent, The Laramie Project, The Normal Heart, and The Children’s Hour. Don’t get me wrong-- I love these plays, appreciate their significance, and feel their resonance within my community deeply. But sometimes I wonder:
I want to see more normalized representations of queer people on stage. I want to see members of my community having everyday problems that have nothing to do with their queerness. Even better, I want to see LGBTQ characters experiencing joy! Representation is so powerful and I’m ready to see myself represented as having a bright future and not just mired in cliched tragedy.
What can we do about this? We can start by expanding our stages and curricula to include plays that do let us live. So here are ten gay plays I recommend, in no particular order, that aren’t Angels in America.
Read them, love them, program them in your 2021/2022 season. Some spoilers ahead.
(A Roller Rink Temptation
by Catherine Weingarten)
1. Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield
This play is a gorgeous two-hander about a lesbian couple, told in fragments shown at various stages of their relationship. I remember seeing this play with a straight male friend who dismissed it as “just lesbian Constellations” but you know what? We need a lesbian Constellations. I would like to see a lesbian version of any play we are familiar enough to be bored with already. Bright Half Life is beautifully rendered and their ups and downs together will resonate with anyone who has been in a long-term relationship.
2. A Strange Loop by Michael Jackson
The mere fact that A Strange Loop features a black gay protagonist of size makes it groundbreaking. Though Usher navigates homophobia and coming into his sexuality, he has a slew of non-gay problems too! He can’t get proper recognition for his writing, his parents guilt him for his degree in the arts, and he has to work for minimum wage at The Lion King. Usher’s journey is as much about his intersectional black/gay/plus size identities as it isn’t and he lives to tell all these tales. That is major-- and the music is incredible.
3. Significant Other by Joshua Harmon
All of Jordan’s friends are getting married and leaving him behind, lonely and painfully single. It’s a very relatable problem that keeps Jordan at endless bachelorette parties, dancing to cheesy wedding songs, and obsessing over the cute guy at his office. I love this play (and directed a benefit reading of it a few years back starring the dreamy Ethan Slater) because I love seeing a gay protagonist in a comedy having the same single-in-your-thirties woes as any straight character.
4. Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties by Jen Silverman
This hilarious play has 5 characters all named Betty, butch representation, killer monologues, and a “dinner party that is also a dress rehearsal that is also a revolution that is also a re-boot”. Talk about queer joy, Collective Rage features an iconic sapphic celebration that makes me wish I could redo my own wedding in its image. I guess I’ll just blast some Janelle Monae and pretend?
5. Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes
I could not make one of these lists without including the queen herself, Maria Irene Fornes. Written in 1977 and taking place in 1935, Fefu is just as weird and wonderful today as it was when it premiered. This play has an all-female cast with fully rendered, complex female characters-- something I still find surprisingly hard to find. While not all the characters have overtly-stated lesbian longings, I find Fefu and Her Friends to be deeply queer nonetheless. And did you know the eponymous character is based on Fornes’ famous lover Susan Sontag?
6. The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner
A completely underappreciated Kushner epic that isn’t Angels in America? You don’t say! This play is full of tragedy but despite featuring a gay brother/sister pair, the conflict centers around their aging father and his wish to end his life. I’m here for an August: Osage County-level family drama where the characters are already out and it’s not some scandalous reveal. Plus this play contains a perfectly-timed Cherry Orchard joke that I will not soon forget.
7. I Was Most Alive With You by Craig Lucas
This play, based loosely on the Book of Job, is also a family drama about two recovering addicts, divorced screenwriter Ash and his deaf, gay adult son Knox. Plenty of tragedy befalls these two but I appreciate that Knox’s sexuality is a non-issue compared to the other struggles they are grappling with. Not since Tribes have I seen a play so lovingly tackle the chasm between deaf folks and their hearing family members.
8. Hir by Taylor Mac
Hir is not the best example of what I’m describing because Max’s transition is definitely a major source of conflict in this play, but this is the ONLY play I’ve seen on an off-Broadway stage with a trans character because there are not nearly enough out there! Hir discusses the politics of pronouns (hence the title), allows its trans character to live, and gives Max a supportive, if problematically appropriative mother. Playwrights Horizons also cast Tom Phelan, a trans actor, as Max and that is the way it should be. Let trans actors play trans roles!
9. Brave Smiles by the Five Lesbian Brothers
If you need some lesbian joy, look no further than the works of the Five Lesbian Brothers. The Brothers are a group composed of Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey and Lisa Kron that enjoyed their heyday together in the downtown theatre scene of the early 90s-- a pocket of theatre history I would personally kill to go back in time and experience for myself. Brave Smiles is a wacky, jocular romp that pokes fun at lesbian stereotypes and will put a smile, brave or no, on your face.
10. Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins
We’ve all had some strange day jobs, but Alex from Buyer & Cellar takes the cake with his gig working in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement. This hilarious one-man comedy allows its gay protagonist to live out one of the gayest fantasies I can imagine and showcases the range of any actor who takes on this role since he has to play both Alex and the legend whom he befriends. No existential angst here, Buyer & Cellar is super fun and probably the closest I’ll ever come to meeting Babs.
That’s ten gay plays I personally love that aren’t Angels in America! Which ones are your favorites? And which ones would you add? I can’t wait to see more queer representation on our syllabi, on our bookshelves, and most importantly, on our stages. Let’s let LGBTQ characters survive, thrive, and live their best lives for a change.
DANIELLA CAGGIANO is a director, intimacy director, and native New Yorker. She is a former MTC Directing Fellow, Drama League Resident, and alum of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. Named one of The Interval’s “Women to Watch”, Daniella has directed or developed work at NYTW, Joe’s Pub, The Tank, MTF, WOW Cafe, HERE, and 54 Below among others. Favorite directing projects include a site-appropriate Fun Home in a funeral home (starring Tony nominee Jenn Colella), Next To Normal, Glass Town, Vinegar Tom (performed with an original Riot Grrrl score), Macbeth, Tumacho (Assistant, dir. Leigh Silverman) and School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (Associate, dir. Rebecca Taichman). Recent intimacy directing credits include That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play (Brooklyn College) and Zoetrope (Exquisite Corpse, NYTimes Critics Pick). MFA: The New School, BA: Sarah Lawrence College www.daniellacaggiano.com @dfcaggiano