An upside-down pink triangle is the driving force of “Bent.”
Directed by theater graduate student Mark Anthony Vallejo, the production is an adaptation of the original 1979 play and will premiere Thursday at Macgowan Hall. Set in Germany during the 1930s, the play follows Max, a gay man struggling to come to terms with his identity.
“The play illuminates and rediscovers that there’s a part of history that hasn’t been said, and that’s if you’re homosexual, you wore a pink triangle (in the concentration camps),” Vallejo said. “Max is struggling to find love. He wants to love somebody, but he can’t because he’s afraid of who he is inside.”
Although the play occurs amid the Holocaust, Vallejo said the story primarily focuses on Max’s personal transformation. “Bent” begins with Max attempting to flee Germany with his boyfriend Rudy during the Night of the Long Knives – a series of political murders through which Hitler attempted to solidify his power. As the couple is escaping, they are caught and put on a train to a concentration camp. When a guard begins to torture Rudy, Max is advised by another gay man, Horst, to ignore what is happening in order to protect himself. Max helps the guards beat Rudy to death to better his own chances at survival, which Vallejo said catalyzes the internal struggle Max faces as he becomes afraid to admit his sexuality.
The train scene begins the complicated relationship between Horst and Max, said third-year theater student Sam Linkowski, who plays Horst in the production. Horst is proud of his identity and wears the pink triangle openly, whereas Max lies and says he is Jewish, not gay, as he believes the yellow star is safer to wear than the pink triangle.
Vallejo said this aspect of the play has historically been criticized for implying that gay people were targeted the most. However, he said the story is in no way trying to undermine the persecution of Jewish people, but instead highlights the struggles that gay people faced during the Holocaust.
Within this perilous situation, Horst’s ability to reveal his sexuality is admirable, said Linkowski. But he said it is also necessary to understand Max is simply trying to survive. The protagonist learns to accept himself as Horst supports him, he said.
“The whole play is about coming out and the strength of owning your identity,” Linkowski said. “And the strength of being honest with everyone around you no matter what circumstance.”
Playing Horst was very personal to Linkowski, who is still processing the negative reaction he received when revealing his sexuality to his conservative Christian parents. Having felt forced to come out, he said he admires how honest Horst is about his sexuality, despite the risks involved.
It’s not an easy process for the actors to put themselves in the shoes of these characters, as there is a lot of vulnerability involved in portraying grave injustices and atrocities, said Devon Horn, a graduate student in design for theater and entertainment media. The fittings are also the most emotionally straining part of her job, she said, because it is hard to anticipate how an actor will react when they’re in costume. Horn said it is an amazing feeling when a person is in wardrobe and feels an instant connection to their role. However, she also said visualizing themselves as certain characters can cause a lot of discomfort – their role may conflict with their personal beliefs.
Horn said she took great care to introduce the cast to their clothing during fitting sessions, easing them into their costumes. She only introduced the various patches – the triangle and star – at the third dress rehearsal, so the actors could first feel comfortable in their clothing before being brandished with the emblems of the Nazi classification system, she said.
“The whole show is very muted palletewise, with the exception of the red (Nazi) armbands, the yellow stars and the pink triangles,” Horn said. “We really wanted the insignia to pop out, and to be almost glaring so they’re in your face.”
The intense history of the storyline is an important one to highlight, as it emphasizes the struggles gay people have faced throughout time, said Ryan Stevens, a graduate playwriting student and the production’s dramaturge. When playwright Martin Sherman was writing “Bent” in the 1970s, Stevens said there was very little research available or published on the history and trauma gay people endured because many historians did not want to acknowledge it.
Not only does this play give a voice to a marginalized community, but it is also relevant to our times because of the hateful rhetoric espoused by certain politicians, Stevens said. He said society has become more accepting and progressive, yet there is always a danger of sliding back into intolerance, and stories like this serve as a necessary reminder.
“’Bent’ is really important and timely because it is telling the story of what happens when people’s pain isn’t acknowledged and when certain identities are ignored,” Stevens said. “This play really is a living, breathing example of theater causing social change and calling attention to a story that otherwise just wouldn’t be told.”