Reviews of Jonathan Ned Katz's Play "Coming Out!"
In June 1972, Jonathan Ned Katz's documentary play, Coming Out!, about gay and lesbian life and liberation, directed by David Roggensack, was produced by the New York Gay Activists Alliance, at its firehouse headquarters, in Soho.
"In 2009," says Katz, "looking over these reviews for the first time in more than thirty years, I'm struck by the strong emotional responses reported, positive and negative. Even the worst review (see below, Marilyn Stasio, in Cue magazine, August 27-September 2, 1973) says that the play 'packs a wallop' and the material 'is dynamite stuff,' though the play is 'deadly as theatre.' I'm fascinated by the contradictory character of many of the reviews."
Here are excerpts from reviews, chosen to convey the variety of contemporary responses:
Dick Bruckenfeld, The Village Voice, June 22, 1972
"We've seen plays about homosexuals, but this is the first show I know of that treats the subject historically. . . . It is less a play than a political demonstration, both a rallying point for the gay community and the putting forth of a freshly seen segment of America's history. What holds the show together is the sense that the performers . . . are talking about their own lives."
Robert Pierce, Metropolitan Review, June 29-July 5, 1972
"I suspect [Coming Out!] was designed to raise the consciousness of the overwhelmingly gay crowds who attended the SRO performances, and if so, it succeeds admirably. They cheered and bravoed and hissed and sighed and moaned and remained so absolutely quiet and attentive that it became apparent that Jonathan Katz knew what the hell he was talking about. If catharsis is what theatre is all about, then Coming Out! is a textbook example."
Ian J. Tree, Gay, July 24, 1972
"I must admit I was surprised by the excellence of the entire production on all levels. . . . I must congratulate David Roggensack on his direction and I feel that he really succeeded in bringing together both parts of the Gay Liberation Movement; i.e., the boys and the girls. . . . [Coming Out!} could go a long way in not only bringing out extreme closet cases, but [in] setting the 'straight' community straight on the bad-mouthing and bad press homosexuals have so long received and how Gay Liberation has begun to change all of that.""
Marc Williams, New York Mattachine Times, July/Aug 1972
"The work was a sheer joy. . . . For those that missed it, well, you missed one of the highlights of Gay Pride week '72."
Thane Hampton, Gay, September 4, 1972
"I went expecting a tedious, humorless, amateurish exercise in agitprop that would have all the subtlety and artistry of a Bulgarian knife-throwing act. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be funny, intensely moving, and beautiful experience. . . . The play is long and throws ming-boggling tons of data at you. I was sitting on the dirty floor, in the aisle, in a ridiculously contorted position. My legs were numb and I was almost trampled three times by the exiting players. We were not allowed to smoke. It was hot, Many lesser impositions upon my sensitive nature have caused me to flee theatres during intermission. However, I gladly stuck it out and was sorry when the play ended."
In September 1972, the GAA production of Coming Out! reopened at the Washington Square Methodist Church and was reviewed in the mainstream press, and twice in The Village Voice.
Michael Feingold, The Village Voice. Sept. 11, 1972
"The material is infallibly interesting, and Mr. Katz and David Roggensack, his director, have made an effective and informing evening of it, which ought to pique the interest of straight audiences, as well as inspiring healthy feelings of political openness in gay ones. . . . The cast, for some odd reason, is entirely amateur -- odd because there are certainly enough gay professional actors in New York to staff a project of this sort. . . . [the cast's] evident devotion, however, has inspired them all to a dignity that is the mark of the best amateur work, and at times is extremely moving."
Emory Lewis, The (Bergen, N.J.) Record, Sept. 12, 1972
"On the Broadway stage, homosexuals and lesbians have always been the butt of crude and cruel jokes, usually in walk-on roles in comedies. However, the gay liberation movement is determined to change that image. . . . I found 'Coming Out!' informative, sensitive, and engrossing. There are weak moments when its propaganda seems too obvious or too strident, but in general it is a most intelligent theater-piece on an extremely controversial subject. . . . Some of the language is raw. There is a certain amount of kissing and fondling by members of the same sex. If you are easily offended by this I suggest that you do not go."
Sege, Variety, Sept. 20, 1972
"While there are rewarding moments in this two-act documentary -- perhaps thrilling to the convinced -- the Jonathan Katz work is too long, and too static. . . . The b.o. prospects seem severely limited, mostly because of the lackluster quality rather than subject matter. . . . The cast is obviously unprofessional but indicates conviction and a contagious intensity."
Michael Feingold, The Village Voice, Sept. 21, 1972
[Coming Out! is] "more of a dream of what gay society might be than a thorough depiction of its actuality. I don't mean these remarks as a negative criticism of "Coming Out!" A group committed to the political and social liberation of homosexuals, as GAA is, has an obligation to present that ideal image of gay behavior to the world. But in dreams, as Yeats said, begins responsibility, and GAA and its sibling groups have likewise an obligation to face the realities of homosexual life -- constricted, squalid, neurotic--compulsive as it so often is -- and think about reforming it from within, i.e., socially, as well as from without, in terms of the legal barriers and larger social stigmas the group is so usefully laboring to destroy."
Jack Reid, The West Sider, Oct. 1972
"I felt there wasn't much about Gay Life that I didn't know about. I was wrong. 'Coming Out' informed me; taught me; raised my consciousness."
Wayne Dekkar, The Advocate, October 11, 1972
"The SRO crowd--gay and straight alike--loved every minute the the night I was there. They gathered around the cast in a semi-circular arrangement of church pews, lounged on floor cushions, stood and leaned and hung from the rafters. And most important, they loved. They loved the cast, the play, the message and one another. . . . This feeling of shared intimacy filled the air. . . . in some mysterious way, the production actually benefits from the lack of apparent professionalism in the acting department. It gains in veracity, dignity, and honesty whatever it may lose in unpolished delivery."
Lorraine Grassano, The Rutgers Daily Targum, Oct. 19, 1972
"Katz gives to gayness a universal signifiance. He presents homosexuality as part of the struggle for human rights and human happiness -- a struggle which all men grapple with in some form. That is why straight people can also identity with the characters in "Coming Out'. . . ." Women, especially, must see 'Coming Out.'"
"'Coming Out' is a play of triumphs. Yes, it is a play of defeats, too. It is a song of life, of gay life. It is a memory of things past, a view of things present, a promise of things yet to be. It is a drama, a comedy, a satire. It is beautiful, it is ugly, it is common, it is rare. It brought many to the point of tears, both from sadness and laughter. It reminded us that we are not alone in our struggle. . . . I cannot find the adjectives to describe what I felt during that evening. . . ."
Robb Baker, After Dark, Nov. 1972
"Carefully avoiding the pitfalls of preachiness and self-pity . . . the production was a vitally human, extremely moving experience."
In June 1973, Coming Out! was produced again in a small theater called The Night House, in Chelsea, New York City.
Debbie Wasserman, Show Business, June 14, 1973
"Through their self-respectful manner, the precise staging, and an over-all sense of humor, [the actors] demonstrate that homosexuality is more than a way of having sex -- it is a way of life, and of love as well."
Howard Thompson, New York Times, June 18, 1973
"Ten young men and women in denims and sports shirts cheerfully bounded into the tiny auditorium and proudly advocated homosexual freedom. Their sharp, supple pantomiming ranged from funny to heartrending. The content, quoting newspapers, diaries, essays . . . was imaginatively compiled. . . ."
Vito Russo, Gay, June 18, 1973
Coming Out . . . evokes a sense of community between factions of the gay community unable, heretofore, to agree on the color of an orange. This ecumenical effect extends to fostering pride and awareness in closeted gays, many of whom have come out as a direct result of seeing the play. One of the reasons for this is that the play illustrates the origin of the myths that have plagued us for so long. It places the burden of guilt where it belongs --on straight society, and allows gay people to see how they've been used and made to hate themselves."
Where It's At, Summer 1973
"A joyous, proud experience. . . . For the first time in the theatre, I felt that I was being treated to various gay ideas as a gay being with enough of a mind to choose what I care to agree with and I don't care to buy. What a joy! Gay is coming of age theatrically."
Doug Richards, The Advocate, July 18, 1973
"The adaptation is at its most feeling when it explores the humanity of the individuals involved, allowing the audience to respond emotionally -- whether with anger or pleasure -- to obliquely made points. Conversely, Coming Out! is far less successful when it attempts direct proseltyizing."
Martin Duberman: "The Gay Life: Cartoon vs. Reality?" New York Times (Sunday drama section), July 23, 1973
"To gain some understanding of the current mood in the gay community, and of the history of oppression that has led up to it, one must see 'Coming Out!' The play's achievements are sufficiently honorable and substantial to make extravagant claims in its behalf unnecessary. It is not a theatrical or literary milestone. Its importance is as a political artifact, not art -- the difference between exemplifying a historical moment and creating one. Nor do the modest people connected with the show pretend to anything more grandiloquent. They wish to inform and energize, to testify to past griefs and provide an instrument for future struggle. . . . I could have done with fewer moral strictures against 'mating like dogs in heat' and more celebration of erotic pleasure -- though [David] Roggensack's direction skillfully 'physicalizes' the material whenever feasible. . . . To the extent that history (personal and collective) helps to provide the basis for identity, this documentary gives the gay movement substantial materials with which to build -- and the straight world, substantial insights into the necessity for the movement."
Duberman's combined review of "Coming Out!" (positive) and Al Carmines' play "The Faggot" (negative) provoked a response from Carmines, printed in The Times on July 29, 1973:
"I do not believe politics is art and I believe a confusion of those two human activities is a dangerous and ultimates catastrophic misunderstanding."
On August 12, 1973, The Times published a series of letters in response to Duberman's review and Carmines' response.
Jonathan Ned Katz wrote:
"There exists at this particular time in our history what seems to me a marvelously inspiring and challenging role for the homosexual artist: to create a new, liberated gay culture which is both of high artistic quality and reflective of the new consciousness being created by gay liberationists. While there is certainly room and necessity for many kinds of gay art, I hope that more gay culture will come to embody the new gay awareness, including a sense of the social situation of homosexuals, anger at our oppression, and joyous self-affirmation."
Gay Wilson Allen, mentioned in Duberman's review as the author of a biography of Walt Whitman, wrote:
"If I were writing the book today I would not handle Whitman's sex pathology differently. . . . My only regret is that when I began publishing I could not foresee that 40 years later my first name would become an acute embarrassment."
Marilyn Stasio, Cue, August 27-Sept. 2, 1973
"this documentary is a conscious work of agit-prop, and as such it packs a wallop. It also purports to be a piece of theatre, a much more disputable claim. Jonathan Katz has compiled and edited a potent collection of poems, essays, and personal testimony relating to the gay experience. The historical record . . . is dynamite stuff, the stuff of militant political action. For all the charge it has as propaganda, the show is deadly as theatre. The earnest cast of ten is abrasively amateurish, with neither the skill nor the natural vocal gifts to override the fact that most of the material is purely polemical, intrinsically non-dramatic, and almost totally humorless."
A performance of "Coming Out!" in Albany, sponsored by the Gay Alliance of Albany State University, resulted in the following reviews:
Bruce Husten, "Gay Liberation Play Urges Political Power," The Times Record (Albany), August 31, 1973
"After a decade of American Negroes fighting against the rightness of whiteness, it seems it's now the homosexual's turn to fight against the greatness of straightness."
Nancy Miller, "On 'Coming Out", Albany Student Press (State University of New York at Albany), Sept. 7, 1973
"One leaves with the sense that the process of 'Coming Out' as a force quite apart from the play is not only not ending, but, on the contrary, is just beginning."
A final review of the New York production of "Coming Out!" appeared in Win magazine, published by the War Resistors League:
Lance Belville, Win, Sept. 13, 1973
"Not that gay life and art haven't the right, indeed the necessity, to be pretty tough and sometimes belligerent, but two hours is pretty hard to take when you're a straight and the theater is hot and crowded. . . . However tedious the tone of the show sometimes was for me, I do know that many people around me were deeply affected. I know that for many people, this will be the first time in their lives that they will have seen what they feel and believe stomped and shouted from a stage. This is tremendously important and it is very exciting to witness. I don't think I have ever had a theater experience just like this. . . ."
Jeffrey Escoffier and David Hathwell, "An Alternative Interview with The Author of Coming Out," The Gay Alternative (Philadelphia), No. 6, 1974.
Asked in an interview what he liked about his own play Coming Out!, Jonathan Ned Katz answered:
"I like the feeling that people have obviously been very moved by it. Its effect on people. It's reached them. . . . that really makes me feel good, that I've been able to connect with people. . . . We haven't really seen what gay liberation as a political force will have on gay artists and how it will be manifested. . . . I hope this is just one of the first manifestations of a new gay culture."