Paranoia and rigid, societal codes mark the landscape of ‘Fellow Travelers’
The year is 1953. Starched suits, Jell-O molds and McCarthyism are all the rage. In Boston Lyric Opera’s “Fellow Travelers,” showing at the Emerson Paramount Stage Nov. 13 through 17, the era comes to life in a performance eerily relevant to our contemporary world.
The show follows two gay men, Hawkins (Jesse Blumberg) and Timothy (Jesse Darden), who are at risk of losing their livelihood and perhaps more during the “lavender scare.” While they struggle to keep their love a secret, other characters battle their own demons in the rigid societal structure of 1950s Washington, D.C.
Mary (Chelsea Basler) spends the show fighting against the misogynistic office culture where her power and savvy is incessantly questioned. Costume designer Trevor Bowen says he’s illustrated Mary’s challenges in her garments. “She’s a woman in 1953 in a male-dominated world. So what does she do? She starts to adopt more masculine codes of dressing,” says Bowen. Here that means sharp lines and rigid tailoring. “She’s adopted this uniform as a sort of armor and an outward sign to all of her colleagues that she’s in charge.”
In such a scripted society, there was little people could do to express their individuality. But Bowen says he’s used the garments throughout the show to subtly illustrate the challenges, and privileges, at work.
Lucy, Hawkins’ wife, takes on a new identity in this production, played by African American actress Brianna J. Robinson. The character was already juggling the tough expectations put on women at this time, but as a black woman she has double barriers to jump. Lucy comes from a wealthy family, so she’s been given the codes to acting appropriately in society. But her marriage to Hawkins takes on a strategic tone. Actress Robinson says she believes Lucy knows Hawkins is gay but also knows a wealthy, well-loved community member can provide her with a certain set of privileges.
“In the 1950s, how often would you see a black, young girl standing by herself in a room full of white people? And then she singles out the most beautiful, the most talented … guy in front of everyone,” says Robinson. “The way I’m playing it is that Lucy is this really firecracker woman. She understands this life, she sees what she wants, and she goes to get it.”
Though the show is deeply entrenched in its period, the themes of societal surveillance, what it means to be American and attempting to find personhood in a homogenous world all strike a resonant chord in today’s world. “A lot of other people are hiding. And there’s comfort in that knowledge that you are not alone, you are not by yourself,” says Robinson. “It’s not a gay/straight, black/white thing. It’s a human thing.”