Sometimes a single box can hold the answers to a pivotal moment in history.
The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s production of “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous” addresses a vital-yet-hidden figure in the history of LGBTQ+ rights. Running at the Freud Playhouse until Saturday, the play focuses on the story of psychiatrist John E. Fryer when he professed his homosexuality at an annual meeting for the American Psychiatric Association in 1972.
Donning a rubber mask and oversized tuxedo to conceal his identity, Fryer gave a speech that would pave the way for the destigmatization of homosexuality as a mental illness in the following years. The play, written and directed by Ain Gordon, sheds light on the relatively unknown doctor from the lens of three important figures in his life – his ally, his secretary and his father.
“One of the things that interests me is the ways in which communities, … people of color, queer people, women at various times, needed to fly under the radar in order to to survive and to gain power,” Gordon said. “They didn’t leave behind the kind of trace that mainstream history requires in order to historicize them, because they were trying not to be seen. Therefore, their stories remain untold.”
Under a fellowship from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Gordon said he had access to large archives of U.S. historical documents to base a story on, with the only requirement being that it addressed a personal battle for public liberty. Starting with around 80 million documents in archive materials, Gordon said he first came across a photo of Fryer in his disguise, unaware of who he was. When Gordon asked the front desk of the archive room about Fryer, they were able to produce every document acquired from Fryer’s home following his death – 217 boxes of documents, to be exact.
But while the play is about Fryer, it actually stars three central figures in his life, not the man himself. Gordon said having Fryer appear on stage would not be theatrical, as the play would have risked becoming a biographical piece. Because Fryer was known for his anonymity, Gordon said putting him on stage would have lessened his impact. Instead, Gordon said he wanted audiences to viscerally understand what Fryer’s life was like, which required the stories of multiple characters.
One of these characters is Katherine Luder, Fryer’s personal secretary, played by Laura Esterman. Esterman likened Fryer’s absence throughout the play to others like “Waiting for Godot,” in which a central figure also does not take the stage. Similarly, “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous” lacks a main character and consists instead of three 25-minute monologues given by the secondary characters in Fryer’s life. Esterman said each monologue in the play is separate, with the characters recounting their relationship with Fryer.
“I learned everything that they have, that those figures have to tell me,” Esterman said. “But Katherine doesn’t know that. I know it, but my character doesn’t know these stories.”
In addition to writing about the people close to Fryer, Gordon said he knew he wanted Fryer’s speech to the APA to be included in the play despite his character’s absence. Ultimately, he gave that role to the third and final figure in the play, Fryer’s father Ercel Ray Fryer, played by Ken Marks.
Gordon said, in the 217 boxes of John Fryer’s papers, there were only nine letters from his father, in contrast with the hundreds from his mother. The selection of Ercel Ray Fryer as a character was almost a response on Gordon’s part to the abundance of info from John Fryer’s mother, Marks said. Since Gordon’s interest is in telling untold stories, Marks said Ercel Fryer was a more compelling figure to include.
Marks said that having Ercel Fryer give the speech was a choice on Gordon’s part to give it even a fraction of the impact it had when John Fryer gave it in 1972. And with Ercel Fryer reciting his son’s speech, Marks said he had to figure out the father’s struggle to honor and to come to terms with his son’s sexuality. Though there was limited information from Ercel Fryer in the boxes, Marks said that given he was a southern man from the 1950s, he might have held some prejudice toward homosexuality.
In the process of researching these characters, Gordon said he wanted to incorporate the 15 months he spent with John Fryer’s boxes into the play’s production. Throughout the play, row upon row of boxes line the stage as the characters tell their stories directly to the audience, as if they are at the archives. Gordon said he tries to question traditional historical viewpoints, which he sees as edited and selected, attempting to present themselves as empirical facts.
“I think the danger of believing that what you are told is all that there is … is that a lot of those stories don’t include a lot of particular people,” Gordon said. “I feel it’s important to annotate the cultural record because we have all always been there, and we will all always do things that matter.”