In Gross Indecency: The Story of a Big Party, Robert Colman, Robert Whitehead and pianist Tony Bentel, with direction by Vanessa Cooke, retell the story of the Forest Town party and raid in 1968. After the party was bust by the cops and guests in drag arrested and photographed, the Nationalist government vowed to strengthen the laws against such “gross indecency” and immoral behaviour.
They ended up with the infamous Three Men at a Party clause of the amended Immorality Act of 1967 — which prohibited sex between men at a gathering of three or more people — but not before a select committee had been set up by Parliament to look into the proposed legislation, which in turn gave rise to the Law Reform Movement, which researched, lobbied and made presentations to Parliament that significantly affected the outcome. The Law Reform Movement was also the first form of mobilisation for LGBTI rights in South Africa.
Gross Indecency takes the form of a cabaret — “A particularly South African theatre tradition,” says Colman, whose work with Matthew Krouse in the 1980s, Famous Dead Man, took this form to satirise HF Verwoerd and apartheid South Africa. It was ultimately banned by the regime.
The cabaret form allows Colman and Whitehead to play characters who then play other characters in the story of the party, the raid and its aftermath. The primary personae are Rita Haywire and Lana Turna-Me-Ova (who were at the Forest Town party itself), and Rita and Lana in turn act out the roles of other figures in the saga, such as undercover vice squad cops Smif and Wessels, Ballas (the then prime minister, BJ Vorster) and Pelsie (Minister of Justice Dr PC Pelser), as well as Justice Morris Finger and Dr Shirley Cockring (state psychiatrist) of the select committee.
So what’s the set-up?
RC: Well, Rita’s throwing a coming-out-of-rehab party for Lana, who’s never been the same since the Forest Town party.
RW: Next year will be 50 years since Forest Town, so we reminisce.
RC: And our old friend Selma Nella comes to play the piano.
RW: We’re your hostesses, and we take you through the story. It’s a party about the party.
RC: There’s singing and dancing.
TB (sotto voce): Can’t dance like we used to
Tell us about Rita, Lana and Salma.
RC: Rita’s a hairdresser. She’s only recently retired, because she just can’t stand for long any more. She does some private clients, still. She’s very good with Indian hair. But they won’t let you do a lot with it, you know. They are always growing it.
RW: Lana was at SAA for a long time. She worked her way all the way up to first class. I had a very glamorous time. When I couldn’t do that any more, they put me in bookings.
TB: Salma’s been an estate agent all her life. Now that she’s retired she plays at old-age homes.
RC: They love her at the old-age homes.
And they all live in Hillbrow, today?
RC: Rita and Lana are two old queens who live in Majestic Towers in Hillbrow. They haven’t got much choice.
RW: It was very posh when we got it. But we’re still stuck there.
TB: Selma’s at Circle Court.
RC: We live in Hillbrow. We use the taxis. We can’t drive any more. We’re the new South Africa.
RW: We were in the streets collecting money for the Law Reform Movement during the worst of apartheid.
RC: A lot of the script comes from the police records and the archival material at Gala [Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Archives], including the select committee.
RW: A great deal of money was raised, and oddly enough, Dawie de Villiers [a prominent Nationalist and later minister] acted for the Law Reform movement. They fought quite a battle. Still, the Nats got the “three men at a party” law, right?
RW: Yes. If somebody reported there are three men at that house, and they are homosexuals and having a party, that gave the police the right to raid. They could kick the door down.
RC: It’s important for young people, who don’t necessarily know about those days, to learn about this history.
RW: We did this last year, and it was so popular we’re doing it again. But we’ve reworked it. It’s three weeks to opening night and we’ve just restructured the play completely. How can you resist such a show?
Gross Indecency runs at POPArt from September 23 to October 4