B.J. Cleveland — North Texas’ homegrown version of Nathan Lane — takes on a modern classic about a closeted performer in Uptown Players’ ‘The Nance’
Look at some of his biggest local successes: Max in The Producers. Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Buzz in Love! Valour! Compassion! Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And opening this week at the Kalita, Chauncey in The Nance. It’s a catalogue any actor would be proud to claim as his own. And, in fact, one that another famous actor can claim: Nathan Lane.
Yes, while Cleveland is a Texas treasure, he admits that Broadway legend Nathan Lane has paved the way for the larger-than-life, energetic clowns that are a specialty of a handful of talents. It’s as if they were separated at birth (or at least, call-backs). And Cleveland is fine with it.
“There’s always the possible curse for an actor — to be put in a niche that they can’t get out of as far as casting is concerned,” Cleveland says. “But on the other hand, if you’re the right type and you can do it, why not? As long as Nathan Lane is working, I know there will always be roles for me — and since a show gets a higher profile when his name is attached, that means regional theaters will eventually do them.”
That’s certainly the case for The Nance, which debuted on Broadway only two seasons ago and which Uptown Players quickly nabbed for its peripatetic star.
Cleveland and Uptown have a long history; he directed the first show in the company’s history, When Pigs Fly, and has starred in, hosted, directed, devised and sometimes saved countless more productions while remaining one of the busiest theater professionals in North Texas. And while some actors might have balked at the idea of recreating again a role associated with another star, taking on The Nance was something Cleveland couldn’t pass up.
The plot concerns a star in the waning days of the burlesque houses of the 1930s. Chauncey is famous for playing “The Nance,” a stock character (like Top Banana, Fan Dancer or Magician) known for his suggestively campy double entendre — the swishy gay guy onstage who let’s the audience chuckle at his outrageous flamboyance. That’s fine for the stage, of course; in real life, homosexuality is still a crime in the U.S., and Chauncey looks for love by trawling the automat on the make for down-on-his-luck rough trade he can woo for a night.
But Chauncey is a conundrum: A closeted gay man who’s also a died-in-the-wool conservative Republican, and thinks the right wing of American politics supports his own beliefs … until he slowly comes to realize a gay man has no power in their power structure.
“Chauncey’s got two major downfalls,” Cleveland muses. “One is being self-destructive with love because he feels he doesn’t deserve it. The other is being naïve to the dirty politics that are going on around him.”
It would be easy to call The Nance a period piece that reflects a moment in our collective past, but Cleveland sees it as something much more contemporary, even today.
“I think it’s terribly relevant to what’s happening right now,” he says. It’s a reflection of our history and how much it has changed … to a point. But also how little it has changed. At the heart of the play is a love story, and unfortunately, in the gay community, we still have a lot of self-loathing and self-effacing which Chauncey personifies because that’s what society says he should feel.”
But as much about relationships is the politics of Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony Award-nominated play. While Cleveland isn’t a Republican, he understands the pressures of being a performer forced to hide himself in plain sight: He spent 10 years hosting a children’s show on local television.
“At first it was at channel 39, which was at Oak Lawn and Harry Hines but owned by the 700 Club,” Cleveland says. “Imagine being a young man, coming into his own sexuality just blocks from Cedar Springs but unable to step foot in Oz because of who I had to be on a day-to-day basis.” The show later moved to a more liberal station, but that had its own issues: Since it was owned by Disney, “I had this iconic image and brand to uphold. Even getting a drink at a restaurant, I’d have people say to me, ‘What if children see you with alcohol?’”
Cleveland agrees we have come a long way. But there’s still a long way to go.
“Do we [in the gay community] have a voice? I think we do,” he says. “But we’re always on the brink — like waiting to see what the Supreme Court says about our rights. We still have a lot of work to do.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2015.