When Joe Cino introduced performances at his Caffé Cino, he called out to the audience, "It's magic time!" And the 1960's at Caffé Cino were a magical time and place for experimental, politically radical theater. This tiny Greenwich Village venue was the birthplace of the Off-Off-Broadway movement, and the plays that Joe Cino produced there on a shoestring were tremendously influential.
Black Sheep Theatre Coalition hopes to rekindle some of that magic this month with "Coming Out at Caffé Cino," a program reviving three one-act plays originally performed at Caffé Cino during that heady time of social change.
Joe Cino, a Buffalo-born dancer, founded his café in 1958 at 31 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. Its bill of fare included free entertainment: folk music, art, readings — and new plays by young authors. They were performed on an 8 by 8 stage, with primitive sets lit by electricity that Cino's lover Jon Torrey stole from the New York City power grid.
Caffé Cino quickly became a beacon for serious, often politically radical playwrights who questioned traditional viewpoints about sexuality, war, politics, and human relationships. As the shows became more accomplished and more popular, they received more media attention and inspired other experimental theaters.
Several Caffé Cino writers went on to win Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, including John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation"), Sam Shepard ("True West"), and Lanford Wilson ("Talley's Folly" and "The Hot L Baltimore"). Caffé Cino even transferred a hit show to Off-Broadway: the 30's movie musical spoof "Dames at Sea."
Black Sheep produced a Caffé Cino-themed evening in 2011, and director Kristy Angevine-Funderburk says she was approached soon afterward about directing another. "Coming Out at Caffé Cino" will open during Rochester's Pride Weekend.
Many of the Caffé Cino writers were gay, and their plays, including the three in this show, are among the first in American theater to examine gay characters and themes. They were written at a time when being gay made a man or woman a social outcast and the actors in this production, born well after the 1960's, had to learn more about that closeted era and its dangers — as did the director.
"I'm 41," says Angevine-Funderburk. "So this all happened before me, too. I needed a year's worth of homework. We started the production process early, because there were a lot of different things for the actors to explore. They didn't really know about the 'Lavender Scare' in the 50's and 60's, or that at that time, being outed meant you could be ruined for life."
Joe Cino died in 1967, and Caffé Cino closed in 1968. But several of the Caffé Cino playwrights are still alive, and Angevine-Funderburk has had invaluable help from one of them: Robert Patrick, who has written a book about the theater and its legacy.
"He has a wealth of knowledge about the plays, the authors, and the period, and he was pleased and willing to work with me," Angevine-Funderburk says. "He even helped with the musical selections, choosing favorite songs that Joe Cino played in the Caffé."
Two of the three plays that will be performed during "Coming out at Caffé Cino" are early works by Lanford Wilson. The most famous of them, "The Madness of Lady Bright," is essentially a tour de force monologue for an aging, fearful drag queen named Lady Bright (Darlando Eanon). "He's afraid of losing his youth and beauty, but Wilson doesn't create a caricature or a stereotype," Angevine-Funderburk says. "Lady Bright represents human loneliness in general."
The first production of "Lady Bright" in 1964 was a great success. Not only did it win awards and put Caffé Cino on the map, many theater historians claim the production marked the birth of gay theater in America.
Wilson's recently rediscovered "Sex is Between Two People" is set, very daringly for 1965, in a bath house. "It's a PG-rated version of a hookup," Angevine-Funderburk says. "But while it shows two men connecting for sex, they obviously also want to have a more in-depth experience."
George Birimisa's "Daddy Violet" was first produced in 1967, the year of the "Summer of Love" and extensive Vietnam War protests. It opens with three actors (France McCloskey, Dave Byrne, Louie Podlaski) doing improvisational acting exercises, but the play soon turns into an exploration of sexuality and anti-war sentiments. (Before his death in 2013, Birimisa updated the play to refer to Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Angevine-Funderburk describes "Daddy Violet" as "abstract and avant-garde" compared to Wilson's plays. "It has really stretched the actors, and we hope the audience can hang on for the ride."
"Coming Out at Caffé Cino" commemorates not only the 50th anniversary of gay theater in America, but also the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. Angevine-Funderburk says that while the concerns of these Caffé Cino plays may be very much of their time, "their themes are timeless. They are all really about the difficulty of trying to connect with other people."