You Need to Know Your Gay History—Says Harvey Fierstein

Special Features   You Need to Know Your Gay History—Says Harvey Fierstein The Tony winner unearths the emotional past of the gay rights movement in The Public Theater’s Gently Down the Stream.
Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein Eric McNatt

For his latest role, Harvey Fierstein is playing a man in love. The actor stars as Beau, a pianist expat living in London in Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream, who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus, at the dawn of the internet dating revolution. The play chronicles their love story through the decades, while simultaneously celebrating the triumphs and tragedies of the gay rights movement. Gabriel Ebert, who previously performed in Fierstein’s Casa Valentina on Broadway, plays Rufus.

Gently Down the Stream kicks off its world premiere March 14 at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater, helmed by Tony nominee Sean Mathias. For Fierstein, it’s a welcome return to the Off-Broadway stage and the downtown theatre scene where he launched his career. The four-time Tony winner still loves the small stage, he says, as long as the work is meaningful.

“You’re going to put in the work either way, whatever you do,” he says. “You’re still dedicating this amount of hours, this amount of time, and pieces of your life and your energy. Why do something that’s trivial garbage when you can do something that has higher aims?”

Fierstein has been telling gay stories onstage for more than 30 years, and has long been a vocal defender of LGBT rights. It seems only fitting that he would feel drawn to this play, which depicts key moments and icons of the gay rights movement. “It’s really important,” says the actor. “Gay history got washed out and washed over, but unless you know who you were, you can’t know where you’re going.”

What Fierstein relishes about playing Beau is the ways in which the character has been shaped by his history and his era. “He survived through these periods—[but that] he didn’t come through it whole is what I think I love most about him,” says Fierstein.

“He talks about himself as somebody who walks around with excess scar tissue. I like to think that I too have excess scar tissue, but I’d like to think that I’ve recovered more. And that’s what makes him fascinating to play. You don’t want to play yourself. You don’t have to get a script to do that.” Because for Fierstein, there’s just no interest if the work is too easy.

Gently Down the Stream plays the Public Theater March 14–May 14. For tickets and information visit PublicTheater.org.