To an American ear, Thamesmead may sound like some hoity toity affair for posh Londoners. But in Jonathan Harvey’s play Beautiful Thing it’s a depressed housing project where two teenaged boys struggle with sexual identity and tune into the music of American Mama Cass to get them through the angst. Jonathan Harvey’s gritty 1993 gem has drawn comparisons to the late Sheilagh Delaney’s groundbreaking A Taste of Honey, which over three decades earlier dealt with youthful anguish and gay themes among Britain’s poor working class. In 1996 Beautiful Thing was turned into an acclaimed indie film and in 2006 was revived in London to great reviews once again.
In Minneapolis, Theatre Latte Da presents its first local staging of Harvey’s play at the Lab. It will include live vocals of Mama Cass songs sung by the beloved Erin Schwab. Peter Rothstein, Latte Da’s Artistic Director, has been advising regarding the production’s conceptualization but the actual director is Jeremy Cohen, the Producing Artistic Director for the Playwrights’ Center.
Cohen asked “what would happen if music were intentional and performed live, not necessarily by an actor playing Mama Cass, but that there was another energy, another voice, a storyteller of sorts that kind’ve moved us from one place to the next? What would happen if we created scenically this world where she is between the scenes, sort of not seen by the characters, but wanders around in the midst of them – bringing the audience from one emotional or funny moment to another?”
Rothstein is struck by what he calls “the juxtaposition of this realistic, urban drama and this iconic music. We (at Latte Da) are constantly searching for new and provocative ways for story and music to intersect.”
Schwab has loved her research, since that has required lots of listening to Cass Elliot: “Lucky me. I have loved her spirit and her voice ever since I heard Dream a Little Dream of Me in high school. I think she has such an amazing ability to tell a story so honestly. You start to feel like she is speaking your thoughts and knows your feelings. I have always been amazed by the way music can speak for us when the words are difficult to say for ourselves.”
Music Director Denise Prosek says that “Mama Cass’s music both as a solo artist and as a part of the Mamas and the Papas, reflects an era of storytelling and invokes the power of an individual to instigate change. That is the message of Beautiful Thing. As a part of society, Ste and Jamie are immersed in discovering who they are, and how do they love each other as gay men? And how do their friends, neighbors, and parents accept their choices? By immersing themselves in Mama Cass and her messages of love and truth, the characters transform into their true selves as part of the world.”
Indeed the Mamas and the Papas signify the essence of social change in a world stuck in negativity. In Beautiful Thing that negativity springs largely from the poverty and its subsequent ignorance and lack of opportunities. Cohen observes the “gritty sense of British naturalism. Jonathan Harvey wrote it as a sort of in your face work from the British theater movement that was happening at the time. The play, unlike the film, takes place primarily in a very public space and that’s a real class thing. It’s not like they’re all in there drinking red wine and talking what if my kid was gay?”
Cohen also stresses how class differences stringently affect the very feasibility of coming out. It’s one thing to live in a sophisticated urban area that reflects affluence and progressive attitudes. But, what if, he muses “you live in Mora, Minnesota or north Minneapolis or Harlem? Class fits into how people come out. Issues of masculinity really come through because it’s not just these kids and their families. It’s also watching them in relationship with one another. It’s why we’re routing for them to fall in love and get together. Ste starts in Act One saying ‘look Jamie, if you only sort of butched up a bit nobody would pick on you.’ There’s very little for Jamie (Steven Johnson) and Ste (David Darrow) to grab onto, so they turn to each other.”
Johnson sees Beautiful Thing as being “about first love for the boy next door and his schoolmate, Ste. Sort of a modern day Romeo and Juliet. Also, Jamie’s relationship with his mother, Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) is loving but strained. She has to work all night at the pub to make ends meet and whenever she brings a new man into her life, it usually ends up being a pretty big disappointment for Jamie. He is starting to get to know Sandra’s new flame, Tony (Dan Hopman) and his Mama Cass-loving neighbor and friend, Leah (Anna Sundberg). They watch rainbows while he’s dodging gym class.”
As for Ste, Darrow says “his struggle lies in getting through each day. He has an abusive family and is often beaten. The difficult home life makes him ambitious about one day having a job and moving away. But it also causes a lot of fear when he realizes he has feelings for another boy. In the second act, he says he is sure that his father would kill him if he ever found out about the relationship. He has to constantly struggle to find safety and understanding in unforgiving living conditions.”
However, Jamie’s living conditions present another sort of problem. Blagen shares “For Sandra, the core issue is not so much that her son is gay, but that she is losing her son Jamie, her best friend, to someone else. I think the relationship between Sandra and her son is especially close, and her concern for him before he comes out to her is that he’s not fitting in, that he might not be able to cope in the world. The world they live in is very tough and the system is not tilted in their favor, but Sandra has a fierce ambition and the ability to transcend her beginnings. She wants the same for her son.”
Moreover, in Sandra’s case, homophobia is actually not the issue: Blagen feels “when Jamie reveals his sexual leanings to her, she feels most betrayed that he has felt unable to share this with her, that she wasn’t a sounding board. She is also hurt that he prefers the company of 16 year old Ste to her, even though she actually thinks highly of Ste because he is a thriver. I think ultimately she is even a bit relieved to learn that Jamie is gay because it means that his difficulties at school have a tangible cause, and do not arise from being broken in some way.”
Playing a youth who has had such difficulties has heightened Johnson’s awareness. He notes that “bullying and violence toward gay youth is a major theme in the play. Minnesota has some of the worst anti-bullying legislation in the country and a major group of people that suffer from these poorly defined laws are GLBT teens.”
Johnson adds “falling in love is an awkward and sexy and scary and confusing and exciting and I think Beautiful Thing captures all of those elements and not just the romantic cliche ones. I love that even though the play is set in ’90s London, there is just something so universal about falling in love for the first time, that I think anyone -regardless of sexual identity- will be able to see themselves in the characters.”
Feb. 24 – Mar. 18
Lab Theater, 700 N. 1st St., Mpls.