In the 1930s in New York City, you could play a flamboyant gay male onstage, but you couldn’t legally be one offstage. Uptown Players is presenting the Texas premiere of the Broadway comedy The Nance. The ‘nance’ is an old term for a campy burlesque stage comic, and as part of the KERA series State of the Arts, Jerome Weeks talks with actor B.J. Cleveland, who stars in the title role of Uptown’s The Nance.
Linda Leonard, B.J. Cleveland, Sterlling Gafford and Sherry Hopkins in Uptown Players’ The Nance. Photo: Mike Morgan
B.J., welcome to the KERA Newsroom.
BJThank you, Mr. Weeks. Good to be here.
The nance, the term, is a shortened form of ‘Nancy Boy,’ a very old slur against gays. It was like calling a man a ‘swish’ or a sissy. But in vaudeville, burlesque and even in early cinema, the term, the nance, actually referred to a specific stage role.
BJYes, in the roster of characters in a typical burlesque show — which was sort of the dead-end of vaudeville because it was the Depression, and they had to do something to get the audiences in and for that dime, they had to give them a little bit more. You had the top banana, who was the main comic. Then you had the soubrette, who did the comedy sketches and sometimes did a strip as well. And then you had the nance — which, hilariously enough, is actually the straight main for the top banana but was a very prissy, effeminate character that was able to get laughs with double entendres and also play the scenes with the top banana.
B. J. Cleveland as The Nance. Photo: Mike Morgan
Now, the play, The Nance, is set in the 1930s, and it’s partly based on real people, a real theater and real events. Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor, had run as a reform mayor. He promised to clean up the town. But why does he focus on the nance?
BJIt was the period of time when New York was about to have the World’s Fair. And as the nance says in the show, it’s a Republican re-election stunt. I say that, but Chauncey Miles, the nance, is actually a gay conservative Republican, so that’s kind of an anomaly. But he knows that he [LaGuardia] is just trying to clean up the city to get all the Midwest families to come to New York for the World’s Fair. That was a good target for them – to clean up anything sensational, whether that was the burlesque houses and strips, whether it was ‘deviant lifestyles’ as they deemed them, homosexuals, gays, anything that might give New York City a bad name.
The humor we see onstage is burlesque. It’s clownish and naughty, but because they know they’re being watched by the police, they can’t do or say anything really vulgar or explicit. So it’s all innuendo, eyerolls and winks. And it’s ironic that this form of gay humor seems to thrive under repression. It’s like a disguise in plain sight, a survival mechanism.
BJCorrect. Chauncey Miles says in a courtroom scene, ‘We deal in double entendres because we are watched by the League of Decency. The only dirty thing that is happening is in the minds of the audience. All we have to do is raise our voice, stretch out a syllable, and they get the joke.’
The play, The Nance, isn’t all campy burlesque routines. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane [best known in Dallas as the author of the musical Give It Up! aka Lysistrata Jones at the Dallas Theater Center] gives Chauncey a bitter, tragic dimension. His stage artistry doesn’t really fit his personal life or his politics.
BJThe role of the nance was traditionally played by a straight actor playing effeminate. But now you have word getting out with Chauncey that you have a gay actor playing a campy gay stereotype onstage. The straights can laugh at it, but they don’t want to see it in real life. Yes, he is allowed to be what he is onstage but don’t dare bring that in to personal life – as he is told. And it is a bit of a tragicomedy because of his Pollyanna attitude about politics, and that everything is going to be OK. It backfires on him.
As a general character, the nance goes into the closet after this period. But there were actors who still portrayed that type: Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, Benny Hill. But then he comes out of the closet again with La Cage aux Folles,Will & Grace, Modern Family. In fact, it’s an irony that Nathan Lane played this somewhat tragic comic in The Nance on Broadway [he was nominated for a Tony, and it was broadcast on PBS’ Live from Lincoln Center]. Yet essentially, Lane plays a contemporary version of the nance on Modern Family.
BJYes, so life’s imitating art here. It is coming into our mainstream more, and we’re accepting it more. And I think as these characters are regularly seen in movies and sitcoms as just another character, not necessarily as ‘that gay character’ —
So the nance doesn’t define ‘all gay experience’ anymore —
BJNot at all. We realize — people should be realizing — it should not be an issue at all, I mean, that that is our family, those are our co-workers, these are our friends. And he just becomes another character and not ‘that gay character.’
B. J. Cleveland. Photo: Jerome Weeks
In the play, though, the nance is a highly ambivalent figure – and even today. He may have been a ‘gay cultural pioneer,’ but he’s also a ‘gay minstrel act,’ as Chauncey himself says. He’s precisely the effeminate stereotype that some straights enjoy mocking, that many gays today would want to escape – or have been told not to act like.
BJYes, and the show is hitting me much harder emotionally than I ever thought it would. It really resonates.
BJI think because it taps into the darker side. It’s a great therapeutic thing for an actor that audiences may not realize, but you take a journey through the course of two hours, two-and-a-half hours. But it’s tough to shake that when you leave –
You’re acting out your fears in a way.
BJAbsolutely. And it’s hard being told throughout the show, ‘Don’t act that way. Don’t be that way.’ I’ve certainly been in those positions in my life and in my career where I’ve heard the Exact. Same. Things. I was a children’s television host for ten years, and I’ve heard that. That has been said to me. So to hear that on stage brings back a lot of past memories.
Well, B.J., thank you very much.
BJThank you, Jerome.
Uptown Players opens The Nance Friday. It runs through July 5th at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Jerome Weeks is the Senior Arts Reporter/Producer for KERA. Previously at The Dallas Morning News, he was the book columnist for 10 years and the drama critic for 10 years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines. View more about Jerome Weeks.