A love letter to the past

A new play looks to Whitman to explore the history and contemporary expressions of LGBTQ art and activism.

By Sasha Barish ‘20

On the ancient battlefields, Achilles fell in love with Patroclus. In 19th century America, Walt Whitman wrote love poems that celebrated the romantic love of comrades. In Britain during World War II, Alan Turing’s genius was cut short by homophobia and suicide. In 1969, “homophile” clubs rioted at the Stonewall Inn. And in 2015, within the fictional world of the new play Calamus: An Original Play, a gay teenager estranged from his homophobic family and a black genderqueer slam poet wander across the U.S. trying to make sense of their lives.

Calamus, the work of playwright Patric C.W. Verrone ’18, runs Sept. 30- Oct. 2 in Leverett Library Theater. I spoke with Verrone about LGBT history, assimilation politics and his reasons for writing the play.

Watching rehearsal, I noticed that Calamus is full of cultural allusions: Walt Whitman, Brokeback Mountain, Matthew Shepard. How do these fit together?
They all fit together because they’re the queer history of America, which was kind of the reason I wrote this. [Calamus is] an educational tool to people today, and a love letter to the people who’ve come before us and who have been fighting the good fight and have brought the queer community to the place that it is today. It’s a history that is not often told, which is why I wanted to take a crack at telling it.

Beyond the references to LGBT history, you’ve reference YouTube and slam poems and Tinder. The script feels very modern. Could you talk about that? Where is the queer community today?This play takes place in 2015. In the summer of 2015, the Supreme Court affirmed that same-sex marriage is legal, and people started acting like the queer community was done, like all our jobs are done, we can get married, [and] that’s all we need to do. And that’s not true; that’s not originally what the queer community was fighting for, and there’s so much else that we are still working towards.

That, I think, is where the queer community is today, that we’re fighting for so much still and yet there’s a population of the queer community – and also of Americans – who are in a place of privilege where they think that we’re done. I have those people in this play.

I also wanted to include things that are important today that I haven’t seen in other theater: how the Internet is used right now, and how prevalent social media is. Black Lives Matter is a very large part of this play. Those are things that I hadn’t really seen in theaters before, and I wanted to canonize them.

Does the play have any messages for the Harvard community in particular?
One of the reasons I wanted to show it here was that wherever you come from, you have a certain privilege if you’re at Harvard, and I wanted to use this as an educational tool to start conversations. Since before I came out, I looked up YouTube videos and articles about [queer history and] what this community was, and then going into [LGBTQ] spaces, it seemed like people hadn’t really done the research to be queer. That was sort of weird to me, and so I wanted to educate and give them a little tl;dr of the research that I had been doing just because as a queer person, as a queer person of color, these are the things that mean something to me. I feel strongly about it. I feel like I am a part of this history. And I wanted to give that feeling of pride to other people.

Do you have any favorite LGBT history episodes, or factoids, or anything else to share?
There’s a large amount of literature which implies that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde had sex, which very, just, funny. I think that Alan Turing, who becomes an important spiritual connection in this play, is just a fascinating person because he built the computer but he also hung around with magicians and feminists and was out [to some degree]. There’s also the title and the creation of Calamus itself. Calamus is a part of Leaves of Grass … and that’s what this show is based on.