America’s first celebrity isn’t a founding father. It isn’t even a man. The accolade belongs to Charlotte Cushman, a 19th century actress well-known for playing male and female stage roles from Romeo to Lady MacBeth. She was also openly queer. Keeping with their mission of creating theater by women for everyone, Strand Theater is telling Cushman’s story in Barbara Kahn’s play The Lady Was a Gentleman.
Baltimore OUTloud spoke with director Emma Hooks about Cushman’s life, the technical challenges of the production, and the importance of acknowledging queer joy.
This is the regional premiere of The Lady Was a Gentleman. What’s the history of the play?
It was produced once in New York in the early 2000s, right around when Barbara Kahn finished writing it. It has not been produced anywhere else. So, this is the first production in almost 20 years. The story is a lot of fun.
The concept for this season for Strand was to essentially create a season full of almost all new work, so I was just knee-deep in new plays. I saw the words “Charlotte Cushman” and I was like, “Sold! We’re doing this.” I got through five pages of the script and knew this was the one. It’s really lighthearted and joyful.
If you could pick anything to direct next, what would you choose?
I’m typically not someone who tends towards super new work. I’m a classical child at heart. I love bringing new interpretations to classic stories and older stories. I’d love to approach A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a different angle, approach Medea from a different angle. There’re so many things in our classic lexicon of stories that could use a breath of fresh air and that I’d like to go to next.
The Lady Was a Gentleman is not Shakespearean, but it’s Shakespeare-adjacent. Did that influence your direction?
What I love about the script is where we get to see Charlotte Cushman in performance. That includes two scenes from Romeo and Juliet and a scene from a much lesser-known play called Guy Mannering. And I think it’s so exciting not only to hear them talking about this production of Romeo and Juliet being a sensation but getting to see two women on stage, bringing so much life and passion and beauty to Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is my probably favorite story of all time. So it was a joy just to get to work on a few of those scenes in that context.
What was your biggest challenge in this production?
Honestly, some of the technical elements and technical gags that Barbara Kahn has written. There’s a scene involving a bathtub and water, and there were many phone calls and so many meetings to do that. There’s a comedic gun that gets pulled out quite a few times. For modern audiences, especially now, the task is finding a way to keep those moments funny. Those were so much more challenging to me than crafting the story. The actors came in with so much energy and so much enthusiasm for these roles that I never had to think twice about that. Me and the technical team had to put our heads together.
The Lady was a Gentleman introduces us to Charlotte’s life as an actor and as a lesbian, and it takes place over a specific period of time.
It’s just two nights in her life, opening one of her U.S. tours, which she did with quite a few of. It’s the opening night of Romeo and Juliet at one of their theaters and all the madness that ensues with her co-stars, with a fan, with all the other people who come wandering into her dressing room.
With that in mind, what is your favorite Charlotte fact that the play isn’t going to tell us?
We do get some elements of it, but just how much of a cad Charlotte Cushman really was. She deserves credit for doing something that only male celebrities had gotten to do at that point. There are letters that we have from her that she sent to women that she met saying, “Leave your husband, I know he’s not pleasing you as well.” It was wild.
Now, something fun – I read that she was also a trained singer and she played Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII. How do you think she would react to the current Broadway musical Six?
Yes, she played a few roles in Henry VIII. I think it would be so far out of her lexicon, but she seemed really enthusiastic about strong characters. What was awesome about her was that she was very comfortable transcending gender, and particularly Catherine of Aragon. She moved on to play Cardinal Wolsey. So I think I could see her quite enjoying Six. I think she loves strong characters, that much is just so clear. I could see her getting quite a kick out of it.
What do you think her favorite Broadway show would be in this current century?
The current production of A Doll’s House. I’m really inclined to say that because she was a big proponent of “Live your life independently, don’t depend on a man, step into your own power.” So I can see that one hitting home for her.
What do you think audiences are going to find most surprising about this production?
I think that audiences aren’t used to seeing women of the past live as openly queer lives as she did. I think it’s a nice reminder that we have always been here. Queer joy has always existed; non-straight people have always existed. It was a pretty well-known fact that Charlotte Cushman did not have any men in her life. And she pretty openly called at least one of the women in her life, her wife. So it wasn’t that she was living a life deep in the closet, and that comes from privilege. I think it still is a great reminder to everyone that we have not always been living in shame, we have lived joyful, happy lives, and that non-straight sexualities have always existed.
What’s The Lady was a Gentleman’s top takeaway?
The biggest thing is that we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’ve always been happy. There’s a tendency to lean into tragedy, especially in periods when queer people were sad, in the shadows, and oppressed. While that is part of our history, there is also so much joy and so much love. I think the play just drives that home.
The way Kahn wrote this, no one in the play ever is ashamed of their sexuality and almost every character in it is not straight. One character possesses a lot of gay panic versus gay shame. And that is more “What is going on?” and not “My life is ruined. This is a bad thing. I am a bad thing.” I love seeing that not one of them is ashamed.
The Lady Was a Gentleman runs May 5th to 21st, 2023, at Strand Theater Company in Baltimore.
For tickets visit strand-theater.org.
Cover image: Julia Creutzer & Julia Williams rehearsing, respectively, as Emma Crow and Charlotte Cushman. Photo credit: Emma Hooks.
Theatre Writer for Baltimore OUTloud.
Bekah is a Baltimore-based ally who is obsessed with all things Broadway. In addition to written reviews, she creates social media theatre content @broadwaybekahchica. When she’s not at a show or organizing her Playbills, you can find her rehearsing with the New Wave Singers of Baltimore, enjoying stoop night with friends, or snuggled up with her husband and pets.
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