The “African Queen” of Broadway’s “Boys in the Band” on Why the Revival Isn’t Racist

Michael Benjamin Washington humanizes the landmark gay play's lone black character.

Michael Benjamin Washington doesn’t show up to a party empty-handed.

Washington, who had memorable recurring roles on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, has been busy writing a play about Maya Angelou for her estate. A scene-stealer in the 2004 revival of La Cage aux Folles, he’s now back on Broadway as Bernard in The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking drama about a group of gay men who gather for an intimate birthday celebration in 1960s pre-Stonewall Manhattan.

The Boys in the Band, which premiered off-Broadway in 1968, was made into a 1970 movie with the play’s original cast. Directed by Joe Mantello and co-produced by Ryan Murphy, the new 50th anniversary production also stars Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Robin de Jesús, Brian Hutchison, and Tuc Watkins.

Initially hesitant to attend the starry gay soirée, Washington explains how he cracked his complicated Boys character, a race-baited black bookstore clerk, by going straight to the man who created him.

Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30: Michael Benjamin Washington poses at the opening night 50th year celebration after party for the classic play revival of "The Boys In The Band" on Broadway at Second Floor Party Space at Eventi Hotel on May 30, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

Besides the 50th anniversary, why is 2018 the right time for a revival of The Boys in the Band?

With any play, we often ask, “What’s the relevancy here? Why does this matter now? How does this affect me?” But sometimes it’s just nice to sit in an air-conditioned, integrated theater to pay homage to our elders and the sacrifices of those who came before us.

Did you come aboard with any preconceived notions about the play?

I didn’t know the play beforehand. But when I read it, Bernard didn’t feel like a complete human being on the page. Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in the role at first.

What changed your mind?

The first half of the play, when everybody’s sober, Bernard takes racial ribbing from Emory. When everybody’s drunk, he takes it from another white boy, Michael. There was nothing for me to play there, really. So I wasn’t interested until I found out Robin de Jesús was playing Emory, because I knew there would be a conversation between two men of color coming for each other, and I thought, okay, that’s something for me to play.

Some of its detractors have criticized Boys in the Band as being racist. Did you think the play was racist?

No, I never thought it was racist. I just thought there was something about Bernard that nobody had figured out yet. I watched the film after we did the first workshop last summer, because I thought it would be good to see the original company. Reuben Greene was a model, and I don’t think he was given permission to explore Bernard on the level we’ve been allowed to explore our characters.

Why was it important to include a black voice among these characters?

I really hit a wall with that in rehearsals. But I was able to write Mart Crowley, who’s still living, and ask why he put a black man in this white tribe. I realized how personal Bernard was to him, because he told me about a relationship he’d had with a beautiful young black man who was criticized by other black folk in town for praying to a white god and reading the white glossy magazines. I realized that Bernard was a human being, that the playwright lives in him as well, and that the character wasn’t just some device.

How does the play’s time period inform your performance?

The original play premiered just days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Playing a black man in a white room, I think about the culture of 1968, the heat right outside the window of this beautiful apartment, when the great integration experiment was imploding. I keep all those emotions in my belly.

Joan Marcus

Emory teasingly calls Bernard names like “queen of spades” and “African queen.” But Bernard also ribs Emory, calling him a “fag,” joking about his “sagging tits” and his arrest at the baths. What do you make of their relationship?

Because of the casting, Robin and I have had some really great conversations about the microaggressions between men of color within the gay community. When that teasing, particularly in front of white people, is to gain acceptance or raise yourself up on some totem pole, it becomes a dangerous game.

Michael, Jim Parsons’ character, shockingly uses the n-word. Yet Michael calls out Emory for degrading Bernard by “Uncle Tom-ing” him. Maybe because Robin de Jesús is of Puerto Rican descent, Emory’s remarks struck me as more bitchy than degrading.

It’s an interesting observation. If Robin’s understudy, who is white, ever goes on, it will become the show I didn’t necessarily want to do, and I’ll be forced to really play the play. The way it’s written, though, I do get to justify why Bernard accepts Emory’s remarks.

“We both got the short end of the stick—but I got a hell of a lot more than he did and he knows it,” Bernard tells Michael. “I let him Uncle Tom me just so he can tell himself he’s not a complete loser.”

Yeah, Bernard is not as effeminate as Emory, he can pass as straight, so he lets Emory say all those things to climb that totem pole, to equalize them.

Why does Bernard put up with this group?

I don’t think there were a lot of places for Bernard to go. I don’t know how open the black community would have been to him, walking as he is in the center of his light. But these may not be his only friends. He could be having lunch with Jimmy Baldwin tomorrow for all we know.

The gay community has also been historically critical of Boys in the Band for portraying gay men as self-loathing stereotypes. Has the play been misread or unfairly judged?

I think so, yeah, but I also think that has a lot to do with what’s brought to a production. When you have a director like Joe Mantello, a gay man, and he assembles nine gay actors with gay producers, there aren’t going to be stereotypes.

The press has made a big deal of your all-gay company. Does it feel like a big deal to you?

When you cast tribe in a story about tribe, it suddenly has authenticity and relevance. There’s definitely a shared camaraderie, undeniable chemistry, and beautiful reciprocity. But we’re also classically trained actors, figuring out a tricky play together, so who we sleep with doesn’t really affect anything once the curtain goes up.

Meanwhile, Andrew Garfield recently won a Tony for Angels in America. What are your thoughts on straight actors taking gay roles?

Well, my wish is that the converse were equally true. There’s this idea we can suspend our disbelief watching a straight actor play gay, but straight audiences need straight roles played by straight actors. I never pooh-pooh the actors taking those roles, though, because I know it’s about the powers that be. There are gay-themed plays with gay creatives I’ve desperately tried to read for, but they weren’t seeing gay actors—or people of color.

When did you decide to be out professionally?

That’s a white boy problem. There was no need to come out, as an actor of color, because nobody ever really cared. If you ask Billy Porter, Tituss Burgess, they’d probably tell you the same thing, because no matter what the level of fame, paparazzi isn’t jumping out of bushes to take our picture. Even in high school, growing up in Plano, Texas, I always knew who I was and I’ve always just lived my life.

Joan Marcus

Much has changed in the decades since Boys in the Band premiered. What’s something about the gay community that feels the same today?

We’re still the family we create, and we often lash out most at the ones we love. We fight for them, but we also fight with them in the process. As we’ve evolved, though, I think more people realize that wit as maliciousness isn’t exclusive to the gay community. There’s a universality and timelessness to how we survive within our family or tribe.

The cast is very convincing as a group of friends. How did you build that sense of brotherhood?

A lot of us have known each other for a long time or done shows together. Matt Bomer and I have been friends for 20 years. Andrew Rannells and I were roommates when we were 17. More than the commonality of being out gay actors, many of us are trained East Coast stage actors, so there’s a mutual trust and respect there.

Do you guys hang out outside of the theater?

We probably talk eight times a day through our text and Instagram chains. We’ve had dinners together, celebrated birthdays together. We really do like each other. It’s a good time.

Do you ever unwind at Flaming Saddles or Bottoms Up after the show?

[Laughs] This is more of a Bar Centrale crowd.

Some of your audience may have come just to see stars like Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto. Have you seen any clueless fans leave with more than they anticipated?

Every night. At curtain call, sometimes it feels like we’re looking out at a sea of gay men. But when we come out the stage door, there are a lot of young girls. You can tell when we’re giving autographs that they’re profoundly changed, that they felt something.

Before the performance I attended, I overheard some gay guys asking an usher about Matt Bomer’s towel scene.

Hey, people come to the show for a variety of different reasons, and that’s okay. He is not an ugly man.

When we last spoke in 2004, while you were doing La Cage aux Folles, you had a drag alter ego named Mahogany. Is she still around?

[Laughs] Miss Mahogany is teaching the history of the blues at Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, so she’s been abroad for a while. I don’t know when she’s coming back.

The Boys in the Band runs through August 11 at the Booth Theatre in New York.

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