There’s a song in the Broadway musical Hamilton that asks “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That question is at the heart of Time Is On Our Side, R. Eric Thomas’ new play. It’s a play concerned with telling the story of people’s lives after they’re gone – but in this case, the people involved were gay and desperately trying to keep their sexuality hidden. Thomas’ play asks the question “Do we always have a responsibility to unearth the past?”
The main characters of Time Is On Our Side are Annie and Curtis, a couple of pals who host a Philadelphia history podcast; as Curtis puts it, “We’re queers that bullshit about history.” (The play is stocked with local references, referencing everything from a prominent private school to a recent City Council campaign.) While the pair’s podcast mostly covers distant history like the Underground Railroad, things change when a piece of recent history falls into their lap: a diary begun in the 1960s by Annie’s late grandmother.
When they discover passages that indicate that the grandmother might have been gay – and that she might have been part of a thriving underground gay community – Curtis begins investigating, and urges Annie to do the same. But Annie is hesitant; she wonders if it’s a story that should be told. After all, if her grandmother wanted to keep her private life private, why not respect her wishes? Or do we have a duty to examine an aspect of history most people don’t know even existed?
Thomas has created some complex and appealing characters whose issues provide for thoughtful, intelligent conflict. Characters represent different generations and points of view, with stereotypes, for the most part, kept to a minimum.
It’s also a funny play, with lots of jokes that reference gay cultural touchstones; at one point, a character reels off quotes from Gypsy, Steel Magnolias, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, all within about a minute. Much of this campy cultural referencing is amusing, but there’s so much of it that it eventually starts to feel smug and self-indulgent. When a flamboyant character makes an esoteric reference to “the robot from Small Wonder,” you may wonder if Bill Hader’s Stefon character from Saturday Night Live has temporarily taken over the show.
Kristen Norine and Carl Clemons-Hopkins are immensely likable and sympathetic as Annie and Curtis, who contrast nicely with each other in terms of background and personality. And Brandi Burgess and Ryan Walter are impressive in multiple and diverse roles, most notably Walter in a poignant turn as a retiree who, decades after his partner’s death, is still afraid of revealing too much.
Director Jarrod Markman creates a sense of conviviality and urgency that draws the viewer into the story. He’s helped greatly by Christopher Haig’s monochrome but richly detailed set, Amy Smith’s tightly choreographed movement design, and Elizabeth Atkinson’s multi-layered soundscape.
Time Is On Our Side is a skillful and relevant play that goes far beyond an exploration of gay history. As Annie researches her own heritage, she learns that the most interesting stories can be found in the most unexpected places.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.
Time Is On Our Side plays through June 26, 2016 at Simpatico Theatre Project, performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 1512 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, PA. Tickets can be purchased online.