Long before gay bars, the Internet and the invention of the ultimate modern convenience—Grindr—many gay men resorted to cruising local parks and public restrooms to fulfill their sexual desires.
A new play making its South Florida premiere, Tom Jacobson’s “The Twentieth Century Way,” takes a disturbing look at the developments that led to the new culture of cruising for sex at the turn of the last century.
Jacobson’s play, a breakout hit at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival, details the true story of two out-of-work actors in Southern California who ended up hiring themselves out to local law enforcement agencies to entrap homosexuals soliciting sex in public places.
“What was interesting was that oral sex was called ‘the 20th century way’ and became extremely popular in the early 1900s,” explains Director Michael Leeds. “The reason was two fold—personal hygiene got better so there were cleaner dicks and the invention of the zipper made it easier to whip them out. The combination led to more oral sex, hence the term.”
The play is not a strict historical narrative, which appealed to the Tony Award-nominated director. Jacobson created a situation for the two actors to meet as if auditioning for a film and stages the story as a sort of competition as they compete for the roles of all the people who are involved in the operation, from johns to police officers and prosecutors to jurors.
Clay Cartland and Mike Westrich star as the two actors, as well as numerous other characters involved in this infamous chapter of LGBT history.
“It’s almost surreal, they have to switch on a dime into another character,” says Leeds, who praised the duo’s onstage chemistry. “It really is an enormous challenge for the actors and myself.”
The two actors actually entrapped between 30 and 31 men for “social vagrancy” in 1914, leading to huge public trials and, for the first time, laws outlawing oral sex of any kind.
Ironically, little is known about the actual sexuality of the actors.
“It’s inferred throughout the play, but it was never known if they were gay themselves,” says Leeds. “How far were they really willing to go to entrap these guys?....Do they start to develop feelings for some of the men?”
Jacobson approaches this question with tense moments and, Leeds says, even breaks the fourth wall between the stage and the audience in a very interesting way that places the situation in a contemporary context.
The production is the first for Andy Rogow’s Island City Stage, successor to the popular and gay-centric Rising Action Theatre, and a co-production with Empire Stage, the company’s home for its inaugural season. Rogow is expected to announce the remainder of Island City’s season this month.
“The Twentieth Century Way” by Tom Jacobson
Island City Stage at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flager Dr., Fort Lauderdale
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. through September 9
Tickets $30 at 954-678-1496 or SmartTix.com