In the early 1950s, America was in the grip of the “Red Scare,” a fear that Communism could possibly take over the country. That prompted the infamous hearings held by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose attempts to identify Communist sympathizers led to hundreds being imprisoned and thousands losing their jobs.
That purge has been well documented in films, books and plays, but a parallel witch hunt at that time only was fully disclosed in 2004 in David K. Johnson’s book, “The Lavender Scare.” Thousands of gay and lesbian government workers were identified, exposed and fired, deemed security risks because their secret lives were vulnerable to blackmail.
For insights into this little known history, Raleigh Little Theatre is presenting the first N.C. staging of the 2015 Off-Broadway play, “Perfect Arrangement,” and the first Triangle screening of the 2017 documentary, “The Lavender Scare,” both based on Johnson’s book.
Topher Payne’s play takes place in 1950 in Washington, D.C. Two couples live in adjacent apartments, a convenience because the actual pairings are same-sex relationships under the cover of traditional marriages. But the arrangement is strained when one husband and one wife, both State Department employees, are tasked to root out “sexual perverts.” The situation becomes complicated for the couples when half want to go into deeper hiding and half want to stand up for their rights.
Despite the subject’s seriousness, Payne filters humor throughout.
“It could easily be a very deep drama,” Payne said in a recent call from his Atlanta home. “But to invite people into the subject, you need a palatable method.”
Payne said he hopes the approach will help people consider how this story relates to experiences beyond the LGBT community.
“There will always be someone standing in opposition to the way you want to live your life,” he said. “The one positive in that opposition is the way it crystalizes what’s worth fighting for.”
Patrick Torres, Raleigh Little Theatre’s artistic director, wants productions to reflect the entire community it serves.
“My gay brother spent much of his life hiding his orientation – a situation that further motivated me to direct this play,” Torres said. “So much of what made up the ‘Lavender Scare’ is still happening today with restrictive new state laws and Supreme Court cases.”
RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf thought the documentary – which will be shown at a free screening Oct. 23 – would complement the play. The film has only played at festivals so far, but Phaneuf emailed producer/director Josh Howard, winner of 24 Emmys for his work at CBS and CNBC, to ask about a possible screening here.
“He answered ‘yes’ right away and volunteered to participate in the event,” Phaneuf said. “This will be the first time the film and play are being presented together.”
Howard said he likes that the play uses humor to tell about a heavy subject.
“This period of LGBT history was fraught with fear and heartache,” Howard said in an email. “But it was also a time that demonstrated great resilience in that community. We heard many times during interviews for the film that humor and high spirits were an important part of that resilience.”
What: “Perfect Arrangement”
Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 27-28, Nov. 2-4, 9-11; 3 p.m. Oct. 29, Nov. 5, 12
Tickets: $25, or $21 for seniors/students; Oct. 29 all tickets $15
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org
The free screening of “The Lavender Scare” is Monday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. in N.C. State University’s Hunt Library Auditorium. The Q&A session with producer/director Josh Howard afterwards includes Jen Stotka, who was interviewed in the film. Members of the Raleigh Little Theatre cast will also perform scenes from “Perfect Arrangement.”