The “1” and Only // By Kevyn Morrow
Actor Kevyn Morrow reflects on the complicated task of portraying a controversial character, 40 years later.
[In 2010, Transport Group produced the 40th anniversary production of THE BOYS IN THE BAND by Mart Crowley. This 1968 landmark play tells the story of a group of gay men in New York City who have gathered for a birthday party. The play was recognized for portraying gay life openly and honestly for the first time in the American theatre.]
I first met Transport Group Artistic Director Jack Cummings while doing the ill-fated, Broadway bound The First Wives Club musical with his wife, Barbara Walsh, at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. She was in the Bette Midler role; I was in the Victor Garber role. Remember that later.
Who knew about four months later he’d have cast me as Bernard in the 40th anniversary production of The Boys in the Band.
I jumped at the offer for a few reasons: 1. It was a not often done important piece of theater history I hadn’t read or seen in years. 2. It was a straight play (no pun intended), not a musical. 3. The assembled cast was solid! And 4. I had heard of Jack’s productions being “all in” and this was going to be no exception. It was going to be an “environmental, site-specific” play—meaning a loft in Chelsea was being transformed into the apartment for the play with the audience sitting around us, 360°, as well as inside of our playing space. Couldn’t pass this up.
Jumping ahead … I remember the first read-thru. Hearing the play aloud for, in essence, the first time. The memories of much of my life flooded in. It reminded me of all of the many concessions I, as a Black man, was expected to make, had to make, while dealing in a white-run world. The racial bias, the jokes, the being the “1” in the room, the “1” in the cast. I can only speak for working in this business. While I was working my way up in the theater, I was most likely the only “1”. If not the “1”, I was 1/2 of the Black couple. Off to the side or in the back—or once in a while featured for a moment in the front because I was Black. The Boys in the Band reiterated all of those memories for me partially because of when it was written and the time frame it represented. Honestly, in the rehearsal process it felt that way more often than not. Not because times hadn’t changed, but more so because that’s what the play was saying and dictated. When Jack asked me to write this essay, he reminded me of a day I asked him, “So, how am I doing?” I had completely forgotten that I had asked him that, but I remembered why. I never seemed to get notes or comments on what I was doing. His response, as he reminded me was, “You’re doing great. You just seem to fit right in.”
And that’s the point. So often, as a man of color, we are expected to “just fit in, not make waves.” That’s what I felt so evident for Bernard in The Boys in the Band. He felt like a side note when written, the butt of the joke at times. I tried to give him more relevance now, 40 years later, by drawing on my own experiences of being left on the side, told to not make waves. In doing so, it made (for me) Bernard’s brief moment of the phone call much easier to access the emotions required. The feeling of not being seen, being ignored, or deemed irrelevant, not important.
On to the lighter side of my experience with The Boys in the Band. This was my first time in an all-male cast. Some gay, some straight, all of which made for hilariously fun conversations I never would have missed. ‘Nuff said on that. You had to be there…HA!
One more thing I found very interesting was the fact the majority of us in the cast were considerably older than our characters (remember I was playing the Victor Garber role in The First Wives Club), yet no one mentioned or commented on this fact. Perhaps because we were all relative to one another age-wise…So it worked, you just bought it and didn’t notice? Or we just looked so damn good and were such great actors! I love the suspension of disbelief in theater.
Thanks Jack, and thanks to the guys I was blessed and privileged to have this experience with.
Glad I jumped on it.
[Transport Group’s production of THE BOYS IN THE BAND was widely and universally acclaimed. THE NEW YORKER named the production one of “The Top Off-Broadway Productions of 2010.” The production received five Drama Desk Award nominations including Outstanding Revival of a Play, Outstanding Director of a Play (Jack Cummings III), Outstanding Set Design (Sandra Goldmark), Outstanding Lighting Design (Dane Laffrey), and Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Nick Westrate). In addition, Jonathan Hammond received an Obie Award for his portrayal of Michael as well as a Drama League Award nomination for Distinguished Performance.]
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