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Uncovering "Unnatural Acts" A new play shines a light on a buried Harvard scandal

By LONNE FIRESTONE

Harvard is one of America's most prestigious institutions, so a story set there, especially a dark one, especially a scandal, can uniquely capture our attention. On Wednesday, Classic Stage Company rounds out its season with Unnatural Acts a world premiere that portrays a group of gay Harvard students who were interrogated in 1920 because of their sexuality. 

Based on true events, the play begins with the suicide of a Harvard sophomore, Cyril Wilcox. When word leaks that Cyril has been involved in an underground gay community on campus, Harvard’s administrators decide to rid the university of its problem with "homosexualism" and expose the other members of this social sphere. They establish a Secret Court, whose interrogations unleash a floodgate of new nightmares for unsuspecting students.

Director Tony Speciale conceived of the production in 2006 while studying in Columbia University’s MFA theatre program. After reading an article about the Harvard interrogations, he tracked down the 500-page transcript that the Secret Court had kept hidden for decades. These documents, which identify students believed to be of questionable sexuality and detail their supposed "acts of depravity," only surfaced in 2002, and their disclosure prompted Harvard's then-president Lawrence Summers to issue a public apology for the acts of his predecessors.

To turn this history into theatre, Speciale wrote collaboratively with his cast and creative team. They spent hours poring over documents, letters, and even poetry, and they ultimately blended historical statements with imagined dialogue, trying to create a portal into the gay subculture that flourished beneath tweed jackets and argyle socks. "We tried to recreate the zeitgeist, the image of the Harvard man," says Speciale.

As Brian Kulick, artistic director of CSC notes, "This play is about the destruction of a community. What’s beautiful about this project is that it birthed a collective in the process."

For Speciale and his cast, the recent string of suicides among gay college students in 2010 made the development of this work and its exposure to audiences increasingly poignant.

"We're still in a crisis of basic human rights," the director says. "When a young person still takes his life because he’s told that what he is isn’t natural, then we still have a long way to go. These boys were just figuring out who they were, just as the recent college students were also first figuring out who they were. Ultimately, we tried to create a world that is as much a celebration of their lives as a portrayal of their tragedy."

The production, which runs through July 10, is unique for Classic Stage Company, since it typically mounts classic work and modern adaptations of classical plays. "It’s a step in an evolution of the work CSC wants to continue to examine," says Speciale. "CSC is interested in epic storytelling. There’s something about this story being about Harvard; it gives it a larger significance." 

For Kulick, Unnatural Acts  is well-tied to CSC’s repertoire. "When you work on classic texts, you’re predisposed to be interested in voices that are no longer with you. It’s almost like conjuring ghosts," he explains. "Part of the tragedy is that this is still happening. My definition of a classic is a play that refuses to stop resonating."

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Lonnie Firestone is a writer based in Brooklyn.  Her theater blog is everybodyrise.net