“Unnatural Acts: Harvard’s Secret Court of 1920” is the first play of the semester currently showing at the McKenna Theater. Directed and conceptualized by Tony Speciale, a professor in the theater department, the play is set in Harvard in the year 1920, after a student suspected of being gay is found dead. After his death, a secret court is formed to investigate accused men of homosexual activity at the university. Focused on a group of young Harvard men, the play is based on true events, giving the audience an inside look into how homosexuality was punished at one of the oldest and highly regarded institutions in America.
“Unnatural Acts” had a long road to get to the McKenna Theater. Written by 15 people over the span of years, Speciale served as a sort of final editor who made the final artistic and business decisions for the group of playwrights. It was written through a series of long form improvisation and other composition and viewpoint exercises. The playwrights would record these improvisations, then transcribe and edit them, with each writer being responsible for a certain character and part of the show.
Speciale described how when he came across a story about the secret court in a magazine it felt like he was “struck by a Mack truck,” and he knew it would make an interesting piece of theater. He cut out the article and kept it with him for years and began to develop an original play based on the secret court while he was getting his MFA in directing at Columbia.
“I’m drawn to queer stories. Stories about queer events and queer people,” Speciale said. “And certainly lost chapters of queer history is one of my big passions.”
The artistry and care put into the project by Speciale are transparent throughout the play. He spoke about the impact the story has had on his life, “If you’re lucky, maybe you have, one or two, maybe three projects over the course of your life that really gets under your skin and kind of fuses with who you are as an individual and changes who you are. And this project for me has been one of those projects. It’s been the most important project in my life so far, and I keep returning to it because I keep discovering new things about the story and about myself. It’s just been a real joy to work with these talented actors who are the same age as the characters.”
The fact that the actors are the same age as the characters makes the play even more special, as audience members can see just how young the men who were forced to stand before the secret court were.
Luke Anderson, first-year theater arts major who plays Stanley Gilkey, said, “As a gay man, it is very important for me to see and participate in shows involving characters and moments I can relate to. The characters in this play are in college which made their behavior and attitudes even more relatable.”
Speciale explained that the story being about a misuse of power by a powerful institution was one of the reasons he wanted it to be told, as well as because the story made him think about his own coming out.
“I went to this arts high school and as I was coming out, all of my friends were coming out at the same time,” Speciale said. “We kind of created this little safe bubble for all of us to learn about ourselves and to share and to support each other. I can see a lot of myself and a lot of my friends in these characters, and I imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. If I would have behaved similar, better, worse. Would I have survived the secret court? I don’t know.”
This is a question sure to be on the mind of viewers as they watch the characters have to choose between a possible future at Harvard or their friends, as they were accosted for doing nothing wrong but loving who they love.
The production of the play followed COVID-19 safety precautions, which included the actors wearing their masks on stage. There was one person who was exposed to COVID-19 while rehearsals took place, but they were able to come back in time for the performance. In addition to COVID-19, the cast and crew also had to deal with inclement weather and rehearsals being cancelled due to snow storms. Despite these challenges, those that worked on the play were able to successfully tell a heartwrenching story about young men who were forced to keep their true selves hidden.
If you’re a fan of the dark academia aesthetic or are interested in a lost chapter of queer history, see “Unnatural Acts” while you can, currently playing at the McKenna Theater now through Sunday, March 6.