I’m extremely curious about stories, especially the stories of other people—their unique experiences and what drives them in life. Acting is a rewarding form of storytelling because it allows one to create a vivid world in the imaginations of audience members. I’ve taken on a wide variety of roles, from Shakespeare’s selfish and arrogant Macbeth to the carefree Bert in "Mary Poppins." With each role and chance to inhabit a new story, I discover another layer of my own character. Of all these performances, the most emotionally impactful and illuminating was my role in “HUNT.”
“HUNT” told the true story of Lester Hunt, a Democratic senator in the 1950s, who served during the McCarthy era. As an outspoken opponent of McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts, Hunt fought to pass an anti-slander bill curbing the era’s rampant political demagoguery. Unfortunately, he and his family became enmeshed in scandal when police arrested his only son, Buddy, for allegedly soliciting sex from a male cop. The ceaseless threats and blackmail from McCarthyites were so severe that Hunt eventually committed suicide in his Senate office.
The play premiered in July, during the D.C. Capital Fringe Festival. We were greeted with sold-out performances throughout our run, culminating in a live reading of the play at the U.S. Senate, one floor directly above Hunt’s office. In “HUNT,” I portrayed a closeted, cynical news reporter named Johnny, who had a loving-yet-complicated relationship with Buddy and was the only person to publicly write about the true circumstances surrounding Hunt’s death. This was my first time portraying a gay character and the task seemed daunting. However, I have had the sincere fortune of creating many strong, lasting friendships with people from all across the gender and sexuality spectrum. That’s one of the most beautiful aspects of theatre; it attracts a vibrant menagerie of people from different walks of life, drawn to the human experiences writ large beneath the lights on stage. But never before had I tried to view and experience the world through the eyes of a gay man—inhabiting that community’s struggles and joys, empathizing with their pain, and telling their stories.
While preparing for the role, I learned how the government severely mistreated members of the LGBT community during the 1950s. The media often branded gay men with corrosive labels like “deviant,” “letch,” and “pervert.” Our entire cast listened to a 1953 PSA radio program warning its listeners to be on the lookout for these “perverted prowlers,” and gave a checklist to help determine whether someone was a homosexual. Many “deviants” were involuntarily committed to asylums and forced to undergo injurious, irreversible treatments as homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Widespread paranoia about gay men preying on the innocent eventually culminated in the “lavender scare,” where President Eisenhower and other leaders of government, including McCarthy, forcefully removed hundreds of gay men working in public office on the grounds that they supported communism.
Each time I learned another fact about the exploitation and mistreatment of gay men, the same cycle of questions would circulate in my mind: How were so many people willing to tarnish an innocent man’s life and tear apart his family simply out of political expediency and fear? How were none of the perpetrators held accountable for their actions? How could someone live each day performing a balancing act between two lives—the inside truth and the outside lie—all while consumed by the constant fear that one would reveal the other? How much injustice could someone endure in order to fight for a love that many others had the luxury to call unconditional? And, most importantly, why had it taken me so long to notice these struggles—both as they happen historically and today?
Diving into the role of Johnny exposed me, at least superficially, to certain aspects of what it means to be gay. I tried to embody Johnny, focusing on historical accuracy and nuance, because this role was so intricately connected to a specific community and its often forgotten past. I experienced, as much as an outsider can, how walling off such a profound part of yourself like your sexuality—as Johnny and so many others like him had done in order to survive—can raise an impassible barrier to all emotion and personal connection. Yet, at the same time, I discovered that in order to do justice by the character, I also had to focus on other aspects of his character: his constant search for truth, his fidelity, and his fiery ambition. Johnny was multidimensional—his sexuality only a single piece of his story.
The immensely positive responses I received from audience members validated my portrayal of Johnny, helping me feel like I’d accessed something real about gay experience—its pain and its beauty. People from all across the gender and sexuality spectrum approached me, remarking upon how Johnny’s lifestyle paralleled their own experiences of living “two lives” while working at their jobs. A teenage boy thanked me, saying that after watching the cold, detached way in which my character behaved—letting the love of his life slip away—he had been inspired to finally come out and introduce his boyfriend to his parents. The best remark, however, came on the night of our last performance, which was held two days after the Pulse Massacre in Orlando. After finishing an especially painful show, given the shootings only hours earlier, a man thanked me profusely for not portraying a typical champion of the cause. When I asked him what he meant, he replied “so many actors generalize what it’s like being gay; they never realize that the LGBTQ community is too vast and varied for any one type to define it.”
People like me who’ve become hooked on the performing arts, or any other type of art for that matter, and have dedicated our lives in pursuit of this adventurous passion have grown accustomed to the stereotypes that accompany this line of work. Phrases like “starving artist”, “free-loader”, and my favorite “get a real job” are heard practically on an hourly basis. We’re viewed as hopeless dreamers who have as much a chance succeeding in this tumultuous industry as winning the Power Ball, which frankly isn’t far from the truth. Yet in the performing arts you have this incredible superpower not found elsewhere – true empathy. Each actor has this unlimited willingness to step outside his or her comfort zone, and dive completely into the lives of people totally different from themselves. And after researching these roles, performing them in front of audiences, and breathing new life into them, the actor discovers something new that they never would’ve experienced had they remained inside the comfort of their own beliefs and opinions. Had I not taken on this role in “HUNT”, my comprehension of “unconditional love” would not have reached new depths, my knowledge of the progress of the LGBTQ community woefully limited, and the grief upon hearing about the Orlando Massacre just prior to our final performance would not have been as visceral and authentic.
A side effect of political correctness nowadays has lead to the creation of rigid clean-cut boundaries between black and white, straight and gay, Christian and Muslim. But if we cannot connect these individual communities that make up our country, how can we ever flourish and earn the title of United? Maybe if more people were willing to open up holes in these walls, to open themselves to new communities, to objectively view the world through new eyes– maybe then we may sincerely learn something. Maybe we can actually move forward as one, and not repeatedly waste time waiting for politicians to fix things. After all, doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result is the definition of insanity. Maybe if we take a risk on empathy and dive in, we can grow and change racism to love, homophobia to love, and hatred to love. Or maybe this is simply just the rambling of a dreamer with his head stuck up in the clouds.