The Stonewall riots in 1969, when a police raid of the Stonewall Inn erupted into violence and motivated a generation of activists to unite, is generally considered the launch of the modern LGBT rights movement.
But nearly two decades earlier, a group of gay men in Los Angeles came together to form the Mattachine Society, an organization that aimed to shatter the culture of oppression against gay Americans.
The Mattachines ultimately splintered into smaller offshoots long before Stonewall, leaving the group in the shadows of history. Scholars consider the Mattachine Society to be only the second such group in American history. Chicago’s Society for Human Rights struggled for the same goals beginning in 1924.
Theatrical Tendencies, Milwaukee’s LGBT-focused theater company, hopes to enlarge historical knowledge of the LGBT civil rights movement with The Temperamentals, a play about the birth of the Mattachine Society and the romance between founders Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich that’s at the heart of its founding.
Director Mark Schuster says writer Jon Maran wove together the love and origin stories to strengthen both. It was Hay (Mark R. Neufang), a progressive activist with ties to the Communist party, who originally envisioned the group. He recruited Gernreich (Joshua Devitt), a fashion designer on the verge of success, shortly after their relationship began. The play follows the duo and their organization over the next two years, as they collect fellow founding brothers and try to maintain a political focus.
It wasn’t an easy task. Schuster says one of the most interesting and challenging things about The Temperamentals is how much the actors had to work to penetrate the minds of their characters, who lived under a merciless burden of anxiety and fear.
As an example, Schuster describes one of the play’s earliest scenes, in which two characters are interrupted in the middle of a restaurant conversation by the sound of a glass breaking — an innocuous noise that paralyzes them with terror. “We’re really trying to grasp the fear and all the hiding that had to go on,” Schuster says. “That happens today, of course, for some gay men. But then, nobody anywhere was out.”
Hay’s hope was that the members of the Mattachine Society would become some of the first, but he encountered conflict within his ranks. Jacob Dougherty, who plays founder Chuck Rowland among other roles, says Hay’s political ideals may have built the group, but as more members joined, he found himself overshadowed by an increasing number of men who simply wanted to better assimilate into society. They saw the Mattachines as a social group.
That tension, Dougherty says, has since been repeated in nearly every gay rights movement since. He cites the splintering of the Gay Liberation Front after Stonewall, and the schism between Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT-UP during the early days of the AIDS pandemic.
“There always seems to be that push and pull between people who just want to fit in and people who really want to allow a unique gay identity that’s a bit different from general heterosexual society,” Dougherty says.
That dichotomy worked its way into Hay and Gernreich’s relationship, as Harry became more active in the cause and Rudi grew more successful as a designer and shifted his emphasis to his love life.
“The show opens with Rudi being bolder than Harry, and then throughout the show you see this turnaround,” Schuster says. “Deep down, (Harry) admits to being just a scared sissy as well. But he felt he had to lead the way — somebody had to be the banner-carrier for the cause, and he thought, ‘Well, it’s gonna be me.’”
The Temperamentals premiered off-Broad- way in 2009, and Schuster believes Theatrical Tendencies’ production will be the Wisconsin premiere.
Schuster says there are lessons to be learned from the story of the Mattachines — lessons he hopes can keep contemporary gay rights advocates from making the mistakes of their predecessors.
The Temperamentals opens Fri., March 7, and runs through March 22, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at Soulstice’s Tamsett Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave. Tickets are $20, $10 for students. Go to theatrical-tendencies.com.