In 1999, playwright/activist Larry Kramer, while conducting research for a play he was writing, claimed to have uncovered documents proving Abraham Lincoln was gay.
The documents, he said, provided details of Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, with whom he reportedly lived and shared a bed over four years’ time. Because Kramer never shared these supposed documents with anyone, scholars widely dispute the claims … but that didn’t keep playwright Aaron Loeb from using this nugget as the basis of a new, radical comedy. Loeb wrote the play as a response to his thinking about President Ronald Reagan’s influence on contemporary politics—and the recent influence of politics in the classroom.
It went on to run at the New York Fringe Festival, followed by a short Off-Broadway run. Now, in only its 17th production ever, Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party is onstage at Truckee Meadows Community College, where it’s serving as a different kind of coming-out party: the relaunch of a theater company that has been dormant for three years.
Prior to the pandemic, in November 2019, I reported in the Reno News & Review on the TMCC Performing Arts team’s struggles to find performance venues as they awaited the construction of a new on-campus theater. Then COVID hit, putting a kibosh on that theater—and all live performances altogether. As theater instructor, company leader and show director Shea King explains, his new role at the college has been to get live performances up and running again after the hibernation.
“There were a couple of classes, but the program was run almost entirely by adjunct instructors through the pandemic,” King says. “Jared (Sorenson) and I are brand-new, full-time faculty, which they hadn’t had in a couple of years.”
King, Sorenson and their students dove head-first into the deep end with this first full production. Opting to forgo the staid, tried-and-true classics, they selected Loeb’s controversial, nuanced script—a courageous act for even those with years of experience—which might suggest the kinds of work theatergoers can expect from the company in the coming years.
The play tells the fictional story of Harmony Green (played by Kristina Charpentier), a closeted lesbian who teaches fourth-grade in rural Menard County, Ill. Green is also the director of the school’s Christmas pageant about the county’s most famous son, Abraham Lincoln; she writes into the play a line about Lincoln being a homosexual. The ensuing protests and courtroom battle are told from three perspectives: the right-wing, conservative, homophobic local district attorney prosecuting the case, Tom Hauser (Gregory Hillman); an openly gay, Pulitzer-prize-winning writer covering the case for The New York Times, Anton Renault (Ezra Rambeau); and Regina Lincoln (Sophia Roman), an attorney and state senator who seeks the governorship and goes head to head with Tom as Green’s defense attorney.
Interspersed amid the characters’ individual stories are silly disco-esque vignettes in which the many faces of Abraham Lincoln dance on roller skates and reflect on the persecution of gays, while questions swirl around them: What’s appropriate to tell schoolchildren about historical figures and homosexuality? How best to speak to rural conservatives about inflammatory topics? When is it best to speak out—and when is it best to keep one’s mouth shut?
This type of show calls for considerable range and a willingness to take risks. King hopes that risk will pay off for the up-and-coming actors who have waited so long for it.
“The more people who come and support us and our students, the more likely we are to get support for our own performance venue,” King says. (The show is being presented in TMCC’s Red Mountain Building, in the campus’ dance studio.) There’s no real clarity on when the previously planned-for campus theater will come to fruition.
“For every student in this show, it’s their first play, and for most, it’s their first time doing any theater at all, so it’s been a cool experience to work with them and give them this thing they haven’t seen at TMCC yet,” he adds. “We hope everyone will come out and support the students and a future space for us.”
TMCC Performing Arts’ production of Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday; and 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Nov. 19, at Performance Studio Red Mountain 240, 7000 Dandini Blvd., in Reno. Tickets are $10. For tickets, visit www.tmcc.edu/visual-performing-arts/performance-schedule.