What It Means

James Corley
Nisha Oza for The Lot Productions
Wilton’s Music Hall

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Richard Cant as Merle Credit: dannywithacamera
Richard Cant as Merle and Cayvan Coates as Boy From Pittsburgh - Credit: dannywithacamera
Richard Cant as Merle and Cayvan Coates as Boy From Pittsburgh - Credit: dannywithacamera

In 1970, most of America had not yet decriminalised same-sex intercourse. It was a time when discrimination against homosexuality was normal. Abuse and violence against those regarded as homosexual were common. No wonder many people, including the journalist Merle Miller, kept their sexuality secret.

Richard Cant as Merle sits at a writing table in his home, deciding he must set aside the novel he wants to write so he can respond to a shocking piece in Harper’s Magazine in which Joseph Epstein wrote, "if I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the Earth."

Merle’s courageous article entitled, “What It Means to be a Homosexual” would appear in the New York Times the following year amidst a growing movement for gay rights. In print, he would publicly admit to being gay and recall numerous incidents from his own experience.

This play is an adaptation of that article mixed with other things from Merle’s background, along with a visit towards the end of the show from an eighteen-year-old Pittsburgh youth who demands he make a better stand against the prejudice suffered by gays.

Most of the performance consists of anecdotes and amiable reflections that will find their way into his writing. The audience, like guests at a dinner party, laugh at his witty comments.

We hear of a childhood in which he didn't feel at ease, a school where others called him a sissy, an army sign-up during the war where he was asked did he like women, and the later blacklisting he suffered in the McCarthyite witch-hunt because the ruthless politician regarded homosexuality and communism connected.

Fighting the prejudice didn’t come easy to Merle. He recalls how in the early 1950s, when people accused of being homosexual were fired, The American Civil Liberties Union “was notably silent. And the most silent of all was a closet queen who was a member of the board of directors, myself.”

But the struggles of activists we can at various times hear beyond Merle’s home during the evening change the writer, and by the end of the show, he is ready to join them.

Although this play lacks both dramatic tension and a strong plot to grab an audience, it is still a great opportunity to see Richard Cant give a warm, engaging performance as Merle, creating the essay that became an important part of the struggle for gay rights.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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