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BLACKFACE is out; homos are in. Everywhere homosexuals are in. On the stage, they have become the sixties' equivalent of minstrel show niggers. Yes, fellas, step right up and see 'em smile, see 'em singin' and dancin,' and jokin' too, lawdy how they do joke! And laff! How they laff!
They laugh a different laugh, though. It is not the easygoing laugh the blackies laughed. No, for when they laughed, we knew they were happy. They had to be happy. We wouldn't admit they might not want to accept our society, a society built on their sweat and labor. So we denied them their full humanity and we put them up there on that stage and we jes let 'em laff it up. We couldn't admit they were a problem.
But with the fags now it's different. They have never been anything but a problem. Yes, the fags, the fairies, the queens, the queers. Just stop and try to recall all the derogatory euphemisms we've invented in order to reject homosexuals. Lots of them, aren't there? Probably even greater than the number of euphemisms we've invented for the black. That's fairly good index of exactly how much our society fears homosexuals. Of course we feared the blacks, too, feared them even while we chucked 'em under their cork-blackened chins. But we feared them precisely because they were hetero. Aggressively so, we thought. And so we quickly learned how to castrate them. And we smiled benevolently and we told ourselves they were smiling back.
But how do you castrate a queer? How do you protect society from their kind?
Well, you can always write plays. The first act and a half of John Herbert's Fourtune and Men's Eyes, a 1967 Off-Broadway play now at the Craft Experimental Theatre, is full of today's fag minstrelsy. In this case, the setting is a Canadian men's prison. The inmates, three decidedly homosexual, the fourth forced to undergo the initiation, are the chorus. The star among them is Queenie. Played with bravura by Marlo Ferguson in a tarnished Carol Channing wig, he--or, as you begin to accept the play's terms, she--is an irrepressible performer, a one-man version of a Hasty Pudding show. The jokes are bad in a great, extravagant way. (One prisoner, dressed as Portia for a Christmas pageant, lamely explains away the gown he is wearing with, "It's from The Merchant of Venice." Queenie's answer: "Well, take it back then." All right, so you had to have been there.) The point is, if you're expecting merely refined sarcasm, this ain't The Boys in the Band. As this play leeringly defines itself, "it has something to do with the backside of decency."
YET, I WISH they didn't want us to laugh so much. Admittedly, we can always defend ourselves. We can tell ourselves our laughter is being evoked only to demonstrate once and for all just how cruel society is. But it's an unconvincing argument. No matter how we hide it, it is the fags--and the fags alone--whom we are deriding. That's how audiences work. A few years ago, the musical Cabaret learned something similar during its Boston tryout. One mock love song between the ghoulish and decadent German emcee and a fake gorilla ended with the emcee assuring us, "And if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn't look Jewish at all!" Immediately we laughed. Brilliant! The audience had been forced into the anti-Semitic posture the play was attacking. Except, maybe that didn't make us all that uncomfortable. Perhaps a good laugh can smother the little needle of guilt that accompanies it. In any case, by the time Cabaret reached New York, the line had been dropped.
Damn, but I wish plays like this didn't make it so easy for us to laugh at homosexuals. Thankfully, Fortune and Men's Eyes is somewhat unique in this respect. It is more honest than the average minstrel show. Before it ends, it shows us a true hell where the whole world is a prison, where the homosexual must fight brutally so that he can stay on top.
Taking its title and its cue from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, the final moments of the play are unbelievably lyrical. Queenie is offstage. In her place, we watch Smitty (Tom Roulston), the young innocent who has become a cruel opportunist, try to express his honest concern for Mona (Frank Storace). Under Patricia Flynn's direction, the conversation, the pleading, the reaching, and the grappling tumbles out so quickly that an audience can't sort out all that is happening. We see love as the confusing and desperate and tortured state it sometimes it. And, for once, we feel it, when the two men are denied the humanity they seek. And there is no laughter, no laughter to protect us.
From its rather conventional first act, Fortune and Men's Eyes develops into an exceptional play. Given the power of its final minutes, minstrel shows may soon be gone entirely. It may not be possible for us to laugh away the homosexual for as long as we managed to laugh away the black.
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