ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S BIG,
GAY DANCE PARTY
Written by Aaron Loeb
Directed by Chris Smith
Opens August 12
At the Acorn Theatre (410 W. 42nd St.)
For tickets, call 212-279-4200
or visit www.ticketcentral.com
Photo by Carol Rosegg
How many Abes does it take to prove Lincoln is gay?
He’s big, he’s gay, he’s honest, he’s Abe!
Show puts Lincoln’s lavender leanings on trial
BY JERRY TALMER
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.
— King Lear: Act 4, Scene 1
By their beards and their stovepipe hats, ye shall know them. Honest Abes, a whole bevy of them — six, seven, maybe more, all singing, all dancing, all finally zooming out of the closet 70 years after the brooding, Raymond Massey Lincoln of everybody’s boyhood, and no less than 145 years after John Wilkes Booth put a bullet through the brain of the actual Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., on a Good Friday night in April 1865.
In the Menard County Courthouse in central Illinois, a trial is in progress. Harmony Green (actress Pippa Pearthree) — a devoted, much-admired schoolteacher for many years, is now being prosecuted for telling her class of 9-year-olds that Abraham Lincoln was, yes, a man who spent much of his early life sharing bed with other young men, in particular his close friend Joshua Speed. In short, that Abraham Lincoln (the father of four boys) was at least bisexual if not out-and-out homosexual.
The case has assumed the sensationalist proportions of the anti-evolutionary Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 — which is still reverberating through America to this day.
The bloodthirsty Menard County DA is intolerant, archconservative Tom Hauser (Robert Hogan), a Republican former congressman who would like to be a congressman again.
The defense attorney is Regina Lincoln (Stephanie Pope Caffey) of Chicago, no known relation to the dead president (who founded the Republican Party) but a Republican herself and a black woman to boot. No easy job.
Come all the way from New York to cover the hoo-ha is Anton Renault (Arnie Burton) — Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times feature writer, and an angry urban cynic who has lost his own lover and many other cherished friends to the AIDS that President Ronald Regan refused even to name.
Accompanying Anton as photographer is Esmerelda Diaz (Stephanie Pope Caffey, again) — a gorgeous Cuban firecracker who sums up her scorn for the morals and mores of these Midwest sticks with: “Somewhere in his grave, Lorca laughs.”
Oh, and one more joker in the deck: DA Tom Hauser’s diffident young son Jerry (Ben Roberts), in his early 20s and also gorgeous — and as secretly gay as the day is long. Has a broken arm to prove it. Tells his father it was broken by some nasty gays protesting the trial. Actually, it was broken in a hotel bedroom in St. Louis.
Rounding out the cast are Ted Koch and Lisa Birnbaum.
From time to time, each or all of the above pop on beards and stovepipe hats to speak, sing, and country dance — in a cornfield and elsewhere — as Honest Abe himself.
Put it all together and you have “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party.”
Well, you do and you don’t, because Aaron Loeb hasn’t built it straightforward, Act I, Act II, Act III. He serves it up as Act A, Act B, Act C — with the audience to choose the order of those acts in accordance with which character they lean toward. This journalist leans toward Anton Renault, cynic or not. “He’s kind of our hero,” says Loeb. “A dark character, but rather funny.”
Here is a bit of Anton’s peroration:
Everyone died, Jerry. When I was your age there was a plague. And everyone I loved, died…And back then, when I’d get home from the hospital, with its God-damned revolving door that kept revolving my friends in, and never out, I’d turn on the television like any normal American, looking for, you know, escape.
And I’d see you good salt-of-the-earth people from rustic America saying this was God’s punishment…
Your father was once the GOP’s heavyweight champion gay-baiter. He spent his time in Congress outing people…Eventually, he went too far. Went after loyal Republicans and got run out of town. But the damage was done…[He’d] sent everyone scurrying into the closet. Your father has destroyed countless lives.
For sport. And he’s trying to do it again.
“Since it’s a play about democracy, I wanted it to be a democratic experience,” says Loeb. He got the idea of flapjacking the order of the acts from Alan Ayckbourne’s 1973 “The Norman Conquests,” David Edgar’s two-part 2003 “Continental Divide,” and, I’m happy to report, Greenwich Village all-star Irene Fornes’s 1977 “Fefu and Her Friends.”
He got the shove to tackle the question of Lincoln’s sexuality from C.A. Tripp’s “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” published two years after Tripp’s death in 2003 — “though as far back as the late 1990s [playwright and gay activist] Larry Kramer said he had ‘absolute evidence’ “ — presumably from Joshua Speed’s diaries — “that Lincoln was gay.”
Indeed, as long ago as the 1930s, sanctified Chicago-based biographer Carl Sandburg slipped in a euphemistic reference to Lincoln’s rumored “streak of lavender.”
Aaron Loeb comes to his lifelong interest in Lincoln like any good ol’ boy from central Illinois. He was born May 26, 1972, in the university town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — where his father was a professor of math and his mother an administrator.
“Each year our class would go on a field trip — take a school bus to Springfield, where Lincoln is buried, and to New Salem, the re-creationed town where he worked in a general store before running for the state legislature, and winning.
“Lincoln,” says the playwright, “is an important figure in the life of any self-respecting Illinois person.”
The Aaron Loeb who these days is a self-respecting Berkeley, California, person, CEO of videogame developers Planet Video, found when he started writing “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party” that different people had different reactions.
“Some said: ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Some got angry. Some — especially gay people — got excited. Some said: ‘Who cares?’ “
He finished the script in 2008, just after the election that put a black man — a Lincoln offshoot from Illinois — in the White House. And in fact, the footprints of that election (and of the simultaneous vote on California’s Proposition 8, rejecting gay marriages) are all over this play.
California’s black population voted heavily in favor of Prop 8 — i.e., against gay marriage. “Which resulted,” says Loeb, “in a lot of hard feelings and nastiness between blacks and gays out here.”
It also didn’t make the situation of black Republicans (like the play’s Regina) any easier.
Aaron Loeb’s wife is civil-rights lawyer Kathy Roberts, and their daughter T.J. is four and a half years old. A previous play of Loeb’s, “First Person Shooter,” came out of his experiences in an earlier career as a magazine reporter sifting people’s reactions to the Columbine High School murders of 1999.
There’s a murder also in “Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party.” But it doesn’t stop the dancing.