When playing gay was safer than being gay

By Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

How hard would it be for a gay actor to pretend to be straight in order to get a role as a gay man onstage? That’s a question best asked of Chauncey Miles, the character who plays the titular role in Douglas Carter Beane’s play The Nance.

“Nance” — short for “Nancy boy” — is a disparaging term for a gay male, and was used most widely in the early part of the 20th century. The nance was a recognized character on the vaudeville stage, a flamboyant, camp stereotype not unlike white actors performing in blackface.

The term largely disappeared with vaudeville — until Beane’s 2013 play.

“The term ‘nance’ was new to me,” says Steve Noll, who is directing a production of Beane’s play for the Madison Theatre Guild. “Even Douglas Carter Beane says the term’s use has not continued into modern times.”

The Nance — a musical comedy of sorts riven with tragic undercurrents — examines the life of Chauncey Miles (Dennis Yadon), a vaudeville performer in 1930s New York. It was a time, Noll says, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia sought to crack down on “deviant” behavior and clean up the city in preparation for the 1939 World’s Fair.

It was also a time when it was far more dangerous to be gay than to play gay on the stage.

Miles struggles throughout the play to reconcile who he truly is with the more straight-laced man he would like to be, according to Noll.

“Chauncey openly admits that he likes his politics conservative and Republican,” says Noll, who by day teaches marketing at Madison College. “He’s naïve and eventually falls victim to his own politics.”

Those conflicting characteristics also make the role a plum for the right performer, Yadon notes.

“Chauncey is a very challenging character to play,” Yadon says. “He is a mass of contradictions, and that’s actually wonderful for an actor.”

Miles also falls for Ned (Joe Malloy), a young man who leaves his wife in upstate New York and comes to the city to explore his emerging homosexuality. Ned represents everything Miles wants and yet fears.

“The toughest thing for an outsider to understand is why Chauncey would push away his one true chance at committed love,” Yadon says. “I simply think that Chauncey hates being gay, and that he’s giving Ned the opportunity to have a happier life somewhere else with someone else.”

Noll has a slightly different but not conflicting take on the character, one largely based on Miles’ personal politics.

“Chauncey becomes victim to his own ego,” Noll says. “He has a lot of self-doubt, but is firm in his dogmatic beliefs. He is both a victim and victimizer, and that ultimately leads to his downfall.”

Personal and R-rated

Actor Nathan Lane played Miles during the show’s 2013 Broadway run, earning multiple award nominations for his role and ultimately winning the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award. However, the “nance” character most familiar to multiple generations of Americans comes from a more unlikely source.

“Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz as a nance,” Noll notes. “He was a straight vaudeville performer who often played a nance onstage, and it was a testament to his acting skills that he was able to play the role just tight enough to pass the censors.”

Yadon will draw on his own experience as a gay man to color Chauncey’s character and provide an introspective interpretation that’s highly personal.

“I was first coming to terms with my life as a gay man when AIDS was rearing its ugly head,” Yadon says. “I remember those years of hating myself for being gay and praying that God would change me. I can access those feelings for Chauncey.”

Noll’s production embraces the show’s vaudevillian song-and-dance numbers, and engages the play’s innuendo and sexual humor.

“Our show is a lot more vulgar, but vulgar in a good way,” Noll says. “This is definitely an R-rated production.”

Part of that self-imposed rating has to do with the nude scene. After his first night with Miles, Ned appears fully nude in the cold light of day. Noll sees the scene as having artistic merit and being critical to the plot.

“This is the first time Chauncey has seen a naked man in full light, which creates a level of intimacy that Chauncey isn’t used to,” Noll says. “It’s interesting that our three female characters are all strippers, but only Ned appears nude.”

Noll plays his three strippers as strong women who make conscious choices of how they want to use their bodies. Those roles, along with the overall theme of government oppression of the gay characters, gives The Nance political overtones that may mirror attitudes of the current Republican administration.

“It’s important for people to remember their history, especially since the present administration is taking steps to stop funding the arts,” Noll says. “Don’t underestimate the threat politicians can pose and don’t bury your head in the sand because someone is going to come along with a lawnmower and cut your ass off.”

On stage

Madison Theatre Guild’s production of Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance runs April 21–May 6 at The Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling 608-661-9696. For more, go to madisontheatreguild.org.