Inspiration can be in the bookstore or archives of your local town. Playwright Tom Jacobson read about two actors and their involvement with the Long Beach Police Department in 1914 and that minor blip in history became the play, “The Twentieth-Century Way.” In its last weekend at the Boston Court in Pasadena, the play has received positive reviews and crowded, enthusiastic audiences.
The incident happened during the summer. The police hired two actors, W.H. Warren and B.C. Brown, to hang out at public restrooms and changing rooms of bathhouses and attempt to attract the attention of various marks. They would suggest possible action by poking a finger through a hole in partitions and if the mark stuck his penis through that hole, the penis would be marked with indelible ink.
While Jacobson read about this curious incident in the 2006 “Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians” by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, the Long Beach incident had been mentioned in a 1995 paper published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality by Sharon R. Ullman and in the American Quarterly in 1999 in an article by Jesse Barrett.
Much of the information came from the archives of the Sacramento Bee–reports by investigative reporter Eugene Fisher.
Jacobson’s first reaction to the story was that it was “a fascinating story, amazing that it happened in 1914 and most wonderfully that it was two actors that did it.” At the time, he really didn’t have any interest in turning it into a play.
Jacobson tried to find out more about those two actors “but couldn’t even find them in the U.S. Census.” What a story those two could tell.
Initially, at the suggestion of the Lodestone Theatre’s artistic director Philip W. Chung, Jacobson thought of writing a screenplay. Jacobson “wanted to probe why someone would do this, why actors would do this and explore who they were. That lead to the many layers of characters.”
What Jacobson concluded was he wanted to focus on the two actors and the conceit of two actors playing everybody and “only on stage will an audience really accept two actors playing everybody.” He might have dropped plans to write a screenplay unless someone offered him money to do so, but the play that resulted has been received good reviews. “I’m really pleased; the press has been lovely,” Jacobson commented.
According to Jacobson, individual audience members have been “stunned by it. It is an hour and half pay where you have to pay very close attention and the performances are so inspired that the audience members come out of it a little exhausted and a bit overwhelmed.”
Under the astute direction of Michael Michetti, two actors (Will Bradley and Robert Mammana) jump nimbly in and out of characters as they play an audition game which re-enacts historical accounts and imagined confrontations and moments of seduction and entrapment.
In the play, Brown (Bradley) enters a theater and is confronted by Warren (Robert Mammana). Warren seems to be in the know about this audition and after the initial discovering that both are well informed about history, they have a sort of act off–each challenging the other to be, to act out different scenarios of the entrapment.
Jacobson commented, “I wrote as much as possible about the different accents and different ways to distinguish the different characters physically, to give the actors some ways differentiate all the characters.” To do the job, this play needed “actors who could be that transformational, actors who could create different characters with just words.” Although Jacobson was not at all the initial auditions (most contracts for plays give the author right to approve all artistic elements including the actors), he did attend all the callbacks and all agreed upon the two best actors.
While the critical reaction to the play has been mostly positive, Jacobson will be tweaking the play before it opens at the New York International Fringe Festival this summer. Although he isn’t sure how he will accomplish this, he intends to put “more focus on who the character Warren actually is, what he really wants,
and Brown’s interest in uncovering what Warren really wants and what Warren really is. This will make it more satisfying to the audience.”
In its current form, the play seems to question Warren’s motives and his own sexual orientation, a timely subject as the play opened on 8 May 2010, soon after the publication of Ramin Setoodeh’s Newsweek Web-exclusive article “Straight Jacket.” The controversial article quickly became a “Glee versus Newsweek” officially as the article named Jonathan Groff as one of the gay men who can’t play straight. Unofficially, it was also a Newsweek versus the Tony Awards as the other person named was Sean Hayes who hosted that awards show. Connecting the two shows would be Kristin Chenoweth who co-starred with Hayes on Broadway in “Promises, Promises” and made appearances on “Glee.”
Although Jacobson hadn’t been following that controversy, he commented, “I think if actors are doing their job well then they are convincing in whatever role they are playing. They will make the audience forget all the other roles they have played. If the audience is still thinking of those other parts. then the actor isn’t doing it very well. …Certainly if you focus on the actor rather than the character, then you would have difficulty investing the character because you’re investing the actor and what he’s played previously…I’m no expert because I don’t own a television machine, but theater is much more about transformation much less about typecasting.”
Currently Jacobson is working on a commission from Cornerstone, on occasion 25th anniversary founding of West Hollywood. Due to open in October, Jacobson will be writing a book for a musical. He also has two shows slated for production in 2011: “The Chinese Massacre (Annotated)” and “House of the Rising Son.”
“I have become very interested in Los Angeles history: the West Hollywood project is Los Angeles history, ‘The Chinese Massacre’ is about the first Los Angeles race riot and so is ‘The Twentieth Century Way.’ I want to continue to explore Los Angeles history which I feel is underexplored, particularly 19th century. Los Angeles is a fascinating city that most people don’t know much about.”
But will these stories be able to touch people outside of Southern California? Jacobson replied, “I write stories that I find compelling not just because they are local. You don’t have to have been to Long Beach to understand and be moved by ‘The Twentieth Century Way.’ Think of what happened to Senator (Larry) Craig not so very long ago (2007). While Los Angeles has had more race riots that most other cities, that’s a national rather than a local theme” he commented in regards to the Chinese Massacre.
Want to be inspired by history. This is the last weekend to see Jacobson’s “The Twentieth Century Way” at the Boston Court in Pasadena.
Newsweek versus Glee
Review of “The Twentieth Century Way”