Finding Your Tribe: Michael Benjamin Washington Talks Broadway’s ‘The Boys in the Band’
A piece of theater historically significant for its depiction of gay men, The Boys in the Band premiered off-Broadway on April 14, 1968, and closed on Sept. 6, 1970, after 1,001 performances. It was also adapted into a film and is among the first major American movies to revolve around gay characters. For that it’s often cited as a milestone in the history of queer cinema. Tonight, May 30, the boys return, this time staking their claim at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, with a cast featuring some of the biggest and boldest names in Hollywood today. Michael Benjamin Washington is one of them.
During the play, set in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Harold celebrates his birthday party, thrown by six of his closest friends. He becomes increasingly morose about losing his youthful looks and feels he can no longer attract cute young men. In addition to Michael Benjamin Washington, the production’s all-star cast includes Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Robin De Jesus, Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison and Tuc Watkins.
“In 1968, Mart Crowley made theatrical history by giving voice to gay men onstage, in this uncompromising, blisteringly honest and wickedly funny play.” says producer Ryan Murphy. “The play was groundbreaking in its exploration of how gay men treated each other and how they were made to feel about themselves. And while some attitudes have thankfully shifted, it’s important to be reminded of what we have overcome and how much further we still have to go.”
Michael Benjamin Washington plays Bernard, an amiable bookstore clerk and the production’s only black character. Bernard is a point of reference for racial conflicts that existed back in 1968 when the play first premiered but that also hold true today.
“I hope that people remember that once upon a time this is how we were. A lot of it has changed. Sensitivity training and political correctness has altered a lot of things. But underneath all of these very nice, new comedies of manners, there’s still this inbred self-loathing that is not exclusive to the gay community,” Washington tells Hornet. “When you figure out how to learn to love yourself so that you can love the people next to you and love the people in your tribe, that is what sustains us and keeps us moving forward as a collective people.”
“I hope people also understand that this isn’t just a gay narrative; it’s a universal narrative of survival,” he says. “That when you finally do see yourself and you do learn to love yourself and you do learn to love the other members of your tribe, that is how real growth and true happiness is earned.”
During a busy day of running errands — from grabbing opening night gifts for the members of his own tribe to last-minute costume fittings at the theater — Michael Benjamin Washington spoke to Hornet about the importance of “for us, by us” storytelling and how shady behavior shouldn’t be written off as something only gay men do.
HORNET: There’s a lot of conversation about The Boys in the Band’s depiction of gay men and human sexuality, but what does the show have to say about race?
MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON: Well, I think that’s really up for the audience to decipher for themselves. It’s not very coded. I asked Mart why he wrote a black man into this all-white tribe during the third week of rehearsal, when I was hitting a wall in terms of understanding who Bernard was. And he wrote me back this beautiful long email about his experience of growing up and the African-American gentleman he was basing this character on that was from his life.
For me, it moved from being “Why is this black man in this all white world?” to “Oh, wow, the playwright wrote himself into this play via a black character as well as these other white characters.” I kind of moved from being suspicious into being very, very embracing of race as a conversation piece in this play. And I think it has a lot to do with the year, 1967, when he wrote it.
I think the racial divide in this country at the time was not only prevalent but prominent in every conversation in life. I was very proud of him for not just writing an all-white experience and writing from the white gaze but also including a black man who was in this world and trying to figure out his identity inside of it.
Do you find the show’s portrayal of this black gay man to be accurate?
Absolutely. It’s his representation of somebody he knew. It’s 100% valid, because it’s his experience. He changed the name, but it’s from his past. My job as the actor isn’t so much to decipher what the audience should take away but to give the most honest portrayal of a human being in conflict. And I think that Bernard is in very great conflict in this all-white tribe trying to figure out his identity, as all of these characters in this play are.
They are trying to figure out why they are friends with this particular group, and what happens when your past comes into the room with you. Everybody has a demon from long ago that enters the room. Bernard’s demons happen to be from what socio-economic background he’s from, and trying to wrestle with that as he juxtaposes where he is now.
Some consider The Boys in the Band to be a whitewashed piece of theater. Do you think it’s important for people of color to see the play?
It’s somebody’s specific point of view from the time and period from when he knew it. I think if you had multi-culturally cast The Boys in the Band you would dilute Bernard’s storyline completely of being the only one in the room. What they did brilliantly — and one of the reasons why I took the role — is because I knew Robin de Jesus was cast in the role of Emory. So one of the people giving a lot of vitriolic, racist jokes to my character is played by a man of color.
I thought that was an interesting conversation, to switch it. I wasn’t going to be just a character of all of these white people’s rage and jokes. And my character even explains why Emory can do it and Michael cannot. And that casting really works. Should Mr. Jesus be out of the show, and his understudy who is white goes on, then the dynamic of the show changes completely.
But I think what we have to understand, too, is that if you come into this as somebody from the tribe writing about the tribe, it’s not so much whether or not it’s your experience, it’s [Mart Crowley’s] experience. But how does it influence you to go and write your own?
What does The Boys in the Band say about the way gay men treat each other?
From the beginning of time wit has always been a defense mechanism, and humor has been a very sharp razor blade that we put on our tongues to protect ourselves — whether we’re gay, black, women, disabled; whatever community you derive from. There is an inbred wit that goes past the line sometimes, because you hurt the ones that you love the most.
In the history of theater, in the comedy of manners, in the comedy of errors, since Molière’s time, shade was thrown even then. It’s part of the vernacular of theater and part of the human experience. When we see The Boys in the Band, these characters use wit and use comedy of manners, and they do everything those women on the Real Housewives franchise do every single day. They have a party and say shitty things to each other, and then the next week they are standing at each other’s wedding. There’s a rebound mechanism that happens in this society, because we understand that it’s not exclusive to the gay community to throw shade anymore — it’s part of the human experience.
And our stories are best told when we tell them ourselves, right?
Well, it’s brilliant that you said that. When I was at NYU — I graduated in the class of 2000 — I realized that everybody was waiting for some straight white man to write the story about their grandparents. Why is everybody waiting for him to do it when he doesn’t even know you?
The past 20 years of my life have really been about learning how to tell stories from my perspective, as Mart Crowley did with The Boys in the Band. Whether you love it or hate it, he sat down, got sober in 1967 and wrote what he knew: his hatred, his racism, his homophobia, his self-loathing. He put it into a form that was theatrical, and 50 years later people are still finding it relevant.
I find a great responsibility in saying I am not waiting for anybody else to do this for me. Tina Fey, a beautiful white woman, had to write her own miracle, too. You cannot wait for some dude in the sky — some power in the sky — to write your grandparents’ stories for you.
Has anything surprised you in your time working on The Boys in the Band?
I think the fraternity aspect of the play I wasn’t expecting. When you have nine guys who all have their own stride in life and career, heads can butt. I have done shows where there have been a lot of personalities who didn’t get along, where it wasn’t embracing and warm. I was very surprised — despite the star status of a lot of the gentlemen in the show, and quite frankly the solid careers that all of us have had being out gay actors — how much we love, respect, rely and depend on each other every night.
We have our texting thread that maybe happens four or five times outside of the theater. So from when we wake up to the time we go to bed, we’re all talking. We have our Instagram thread. We contact and communicate with each other constantly, and that really surprised me.