Queer theater thrives in L.A.: Two plays reviewed, one historic, one historical
The cast of ‘Last Summer at Bluefish Cove’ (Frank Ishman)

LOS ANGELES—Underlying all identity politics is the right to live life authentically, unharmed and respected in the broader society. This respect takes form in concrete ways, such as certain rights: to walk the streets without fear, to an equal wage, and to participate fully in community.

There are fundamental, existential consequences for a person to own the right to express their authenticity, to be themselves. We are talking high stakes here, sometimes life and death. So what do you do when you are part of an “outcast” group—whether we are talking about living in the America of the 1970s or 2023?

Do you create an enclave to live within, or a place to retreat to, where you can safely be yourself and commune with like-minded people? Or do you work for acceptance within the larger society and push for social change? And if you decide on the latter, do you agitate from within the system or from outside of those institutions? What is the most effective strategy to achieve fundamental, lasting change? And what keeps you sane?

Just maybe, the answer lies in all of the above, at different times and places, and often simultaneously with an inside/outside approach. These questions, consciously articulated or not, are elegantly, eloquently expressed in the two plays we saw on Sunday, June 18—the historical one as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the other a historic summer offering at the Fountain Theatre. Curiously, both are set in the earliest flush of the gay and lesbian liberation movement of the early 1970s: The evolution into the more expansive LGBTQI+ would come later.


Written and directed by Dahn Hiuni, Sick had its world premiere on June 9 at the Broadwater Theater Mainstage as part of the 2023 Hollywood Fringe Festival. This entertaining and informative docudrama tells the story of the struggle to get the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to remove homosexuality as a mental illness from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Removal of homosexuality from the DSM was a key moment in the gay rights movement. It removed a key rationale for the barbaric practice of conversion therapy, often perpetrated on LGBTQ+ youth.

Sick won the West Hollywood Pride Arts Festival Play Competition in 2020 and was initially presented as a virtual reading on Facebook and Zoom. Hiuni took three years to research the script and several more to write. The effort is evident as the play highlights several historic speeches and includes many real-life characters. But its brilliance is in melding the personal and the political. Hiuni is able to clearly relate the historical narrative while conveying the emotional impact the APA’s policies had on real people and those who loved them.

Activist Ron Gold, left, at the 1972 APA Conference in Dallas (photo courtesy of the playwright)

Sick’s central character is gay activist and journalist Ron Gold, who played a lead role in this fight. Gold was chair of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Gay Activists Alliance, the group that worked to change the APA’s policy on homosexuality. This committee was defined as “ad hoc” because the GAA had a policy of “not cooperating or negotiating with the oppressor.” Clearly there was tension within the GAA about the best strategy for winning this important battle.

Early efforts to challenge the APA’s definition of homosexuality centered around “pop up” challenges from audience members during a panel discussion at the 1970 APA convention. Although this action, organized by the GAA, brought light and attention to the issue, it soon became evident that pressure from a gay psychiatrist from within the organization would be most effective at changing APA policies.

Ensuing efforts from within the APA were possible due to the participation of many individuals. Although you can easily read about them on the internet, it was more fun to be educated in the audience. In addition to Ron Gold, other activists mentioned in the play include Barbara Gittings, a lesbian activist who organized the panel discussion at the convention and identified a homosexual psychiatrist who would be willing to speak there—Dr. H Anonymous, masked and voice-distorted, who spoke about the discrimination he faced. In 1994 Dr. John E. Fryer finally felt comfortable enough to reveal that he was in fact Dr. H Anonymous. Dr. Robert Spitzer helped initiate discussion about homosexuality within the APA and then helped rewrite the DSM. And last but not least, Evelyn Hooker, a pioneering and largely ignored psychologist whose clinical research demonstrated that homosexuality is not an illness.

From left, Maya Knell (Barbara Gittings and other female characters), Mikel Farber (Ron Gold), and playwright-director Dahn Hiuni (Peggy Burt).

Other historical figures include two prominent psychoanalysts who promulgated the theory that domineering or seductive mothers and weak non-protective fathers contributed to their child’s “deviant” sexual orientation. Both advocated that the “illness” could be treated by psychotherapy: Dr. Charles Socarides, who later went on to cofound the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality. (NARTH promoted conversion therapy; its tax-exempt status was revoked in 2012.)  And we have Dr. Irving Bieber, whose purported “scientific” study of 109 homosexuals gave credence to these views.

Gold is most famous for his speech at the APA meeting in Honolulu in May of 1973. “Your profession of psychiatry—dedicated to making sick people well—is the cornerstone of oppression that makes people sick.” In December of that year the APA removed “ego-syntonic homosexuality” from its list of mental illnesses. For those needing education (like ourselves), “ego-syntonic” refers to behaviors that are compatible with one’s sense of self, as opposed to “ego-dystonic” which is associated with self-loathing. It wasn’t until 2013 that sexual orientation was entirely removed from the DSM.

If Hiuni’s goal in writing and producing the play was to create an interest in and knowledge about the fight to get the APA to remove homosexuality from the DSM, he was eminently successful. But the play is certainly more than dry docudrama. Sick is 100 minutes (no intermission) of engaging and entertaining fare that gives life to these important times. There are hard scenes when brutal conversion therapy is portrayed on stage. At the performance we saw, Ron Gold was wonderfully acted by understudy Gregg Rogen. Maya Knell does a superb job of creating three distinct female characters, and Kevin Michael Moran portrays both Irving Bieber and a marvelous ghost of Sigmund Freud. Fringe Festival plays often have to make do with little or no scenery. Huini makes creative use of props and staging to choreograph multiple short scenes into an insightful and cohesive story.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the APA’s momentous decision, but there is still work to be done. The Movement Advancement Project reports that 30% of youth (ages 13-17) live in 20 states and four territories where there are no state laws limiting conversion therapy. As of 2023 only 21 states have comprehensive laws protecting youth from conversion therapy by licensed practitioners. The remaining states have some or partial protections from conversion therapy. Counseling by religious practitioners is largely exempt from conversion bans. In 2019 UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that 16,000 youth would be subject to conversion therapy in the states where there is no protection, and an additional 57,000 youth nationwide will be subjected to conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18.

Dahn Hiuni is a Los Angeles-based playwright, visual artist, graphic designer and academic. The creative team includes music by Larry Williams, with additional music by Randy Goodrum and Yuval Ron. Lighting is by Miranda Stewart; sets, props and projections are by Dahn Hiuni and Kiley Nagl; costumes are by the cast. Technical director and stage manager for the Broadwater is Miles Berman.

Additional cast members include Mikel Farber in the lead role of Ron Gold, Daniel Kuhlman, Keith Bush, Nick Blocha, Robert E. Lee, and Michael Garcia Otavo.

Desiree Staples serves as both Assistant Director and dramaturg. Robert Besner is producer and Peggy Burt is associate producer.

You can still see Sick at the Broadwater Theater Mainstage on Hollywood’s Theater Row, 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles 90038. The last remaining performance is on Sat., June 24 at 10:30 p.m. It is worth staying up for!

The play is suited for teens and adults, and those with an interest in LGBTQ+ issues and/or psychiatric history in America. An interview with author and director Dahn Hiuni can be read here.

To reserve tickets, or for more information, please Click Here or here.

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove

When Jane Chambers premiered this play in 1980, it became an instant lesbian classic, perhaps only comparable to the impact British author Radclyffe Hall made in 1928 with her novel The Well of Loneliness. Eric recalls seeing it at that time Off-Broadway. Its focus is the women of Bluefish Cove, an oceanfront resort community on Long Island’s north shore, “just far enough from the city” and within sight of Connecticut across the Sound. Perhaps more familiar to readers is the much-written-about gay male enclave of Fire Island off of Long Island’s South Shore.

Set in 1974, a group of queer women spend their summers together in a cluster of well-appointed homes (more than cabins, it would appear) at the Cove. From the digs they occupy, and the fact that they are unencumbered by work, children or other family obligations to decamp here for the entire summer, it’s evident we have a group of women with a certain degree of class privilege, though of course such women (one character in particular) are also known to attract a younger partner or two who may primarily be drawn to them by wealth and status.

It comes out in their backstories, however, that not all their paths to Bluefish Cove have been smooth, and how could they have been? We learn of banishment from their families of origin, a divorce without alimony as punishment for coming out and as the price to play if a mother wants continued access to her children, life in the closet and fear of exposure in another case for a best-selling feminist writer.

Jane Chambers was among the earliest and most successful playwrights to depict love between women as happy, healthy, and well-adjusted—at least as much as anyone else’s. Quite a contrast to the shameful exploitation of the lesbian theme in Lillian Hellman’s hopelessly dated 1934 The Children’s Hour, which for many theatergoers had long been the only play of note on the subject. None of the eight women at Bluefish Cove that summer are in therapy or suffering crippling anguish over their love for other women. Chambers almost single-handedly changed the course of American drama with works informed by second-wave feminism and the burgeoning gay rights movement, including A Late Snow (1974), Last Summer at Bluefish Cove (1980), and My Blue Heaven (1981). It was a sad day in theater history when she died of brain cancer in 1983 at the age of 45.

Eerily almost predicting the events in her own life, cancer is a plot element in Bluefish Cove. Into this tight community wanders Eva, a naïve straight woman recently separated from her husband. She is clearly looking for answers to her sense of anomie and lack of fulfillment in life—she’s just finished devouring The Female Sexual Imperative, by the “High Priestess of Feminism,” author Dr. Kitty Cochrane—and seems poised for some major changes. A real estate agent in town has unwittingly booked her into a rental on the compound, and there she turns up, unaware of everyone’s lesbianism.

Once at Bluefish Cove, she is enchanted by the tough-talking, hard-shelled, cigarette-puffing Lil who, we soon learn, is enjoying what everyone else but Eva knows will be her last summer until cancer claims her. There’d be no drama if Eva didn’t fall hard for Lil. In a play that brings up the legacy each of these women will leave to the world—children, art, books—Lil’s will be Eva’s emancipation into the lesbian identity she never consciously fantasized until now but which represents her true self (there was that special high school girlfriend…). And how surprised she is (no great plot spoiler here) that the Dr. Cochrane she so admires is indeed one of the Bluefish Cove residents.

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove’s L.A. history is relevant. “The play ran for two years, from 1983-1985, at the Fountain Theatre 40 years ago starring Jean Smart, before Deborah Lawlor and I acquired the building and established our company,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. It was “a benchmark achievement in L.A. theater,, and a milestone in the history of the Fountain. For many queer women, it was the first time they saw themselves on stage in a play written by a lesbian. For straight audiences, it was an entertaining glimpse into a world that held many of the same needs and fears as their own. It was exhilarating.

“We now live in dangerous, disturbing times. At least 417 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the United States since the start of the year—a new record. People around the country face violence and inequality because of who they love, how they look, or who they are.

“The Fountain Theatre offers this play as public affirmation that we all ache for the same human connection, we all seek love and friendship, no matter our differences. Many who were here 40 years ago have never forgotten how this funny, tender play changed their lives. Generations of young queer women today, born after the play was produced here…will visit Bluefish Cove for the first time this summer, and discover for themselves what all the joy and excitement was about.”

We would respectfully expand upon Mr. Sachs. It’s not just for “young queer women.” As it always was, it’s a heartwarming play alive with deep, enduring friendship, with laughter at human foibles, with examples of both mature love and short-lived flings, with self-confident women who have hopes and plans for the future. The eight characters we meet are well-rounded, three-dimensional human beings with unique personalities who not only transcend stereotypes, but who can equally speak to the whole world, as Sachs says, about the nuanced feelings and relationships any of us might have. A word to the wise: Leave your preconceptions home.

The all female-identifying and non-binary cast and creative team includes actors Sarah Scott Davis as Kitty, Tamika Katon–Donegal as Rita, Lindsay LaVanchy as Eva, Noelle Messier as Annie, Stephanie Pardi as Donna, Ann Sonneville as Lilian (Lil), Stasha Surdyke as Sue, Ellen D. Williams as Rae, and Allison Husko as the Swing. Also scenic designer Desma Murphy, lighting designer R. S. Buck, sound designer Andrea Allmond, costume designer Halei Parker, prop master Rebecca Carr and intimacy director Savanah Knechel. The production stage manager is Chloe Willey, and Gina DeLuca is assistant stage manager. The entire production is directed by Hannah Wolf.

This historic play, complemented with tokes on ye olde marijuana joints, is obviously of its own time and has not been updated to include today’s hottest topics and language. Same-gender marriage is something you’d have to go to Amsterdam for, and the terms “non-binary,” “gender fluid,” “trans,” as well as the singular pronouns “they/them,” etc., are still decades off. But what a window into its time it is!

The cast on the outdoor set (Ken Sawyer)

As it started doing during the Covid pandemic, The Fountain Theatre has transformed its parking lot into a highly descriptive outdoor set, creating a believable interior for Lil’s house and a downstage edge-of-the-ocean experience complete with a fire pit on the beach. Special note should be made of the lighting, because the play (with one intermission) has both daytime and nighttime scenes, and all the while, starting at 7 p.m., the real-time daylight is slowly fading. The unity of actual time and theatrical time is quietly stunning and lovely.

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove runs through Aug. 27, with performances on Fri., Sat., Sun. and Mon. at 7 p.m. (dark Aug. 5 and 6). Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Mon. night (subject to availability) in addition to regular seating.

The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie). Patrons are invited to relax before and after the show at the Fountain’s indoor/outdoor café. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or go to the theater website. A promo video can be viewed here. And click here to hear an interview with director Hannah Wolf and actors Noelle Messier and Ellen D. Williams on “The Out Agenda” at KPFK 90.7 FM.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.

Lori A. Zimmerman
Lori A. Zimmerman

Lori A. Zimmerman is a Los Angeles-based fiber artist and retired nonprofit administrator who was always delighted to land a job in theater.