LONG BEACH — “The Twentieth Century Way” is set in 1914 Long Beach, when the city was in the midst of huge religious revival, and Mayor Louis Wheaton embarked on his conservative agenda.
Wheaton was determined to keep alcohol out of the city, stop illegal gambling, and run “social vagrants” (code for gay men) out of town, and he didn’t care if people’s lives were ruined.
‘TWENTIETH CENTURY WAY’
To pull off the plan, Wheaton and Charles Cavender Cole, chief of police, hired two actors to lure gay men into sex and then have the police arrest them. The decoys, W. H. Warren and R. C. Brown, were paid a bounty for the arrests.
Tom Jacobson’s play “The Twentieth Century Way” recounts this dark, disgusting, disturbing, and largely unknown part of Long Beach history.
“The Twentieth Century Way” will open at the Long Beach Playhouse on Saturday and closes August 18. The play, written in 2010, has been produced in Boston, Pasadena, and on Broadway.
POLICE TARGET GAY MEN
Instead of spending public money pursuing crimes where people were harmed, property stolen or damaged, the police department squandered taxpayer funds on behavior between consenting adults — often in the privacy of their own homes — and destroyed people’s lives.
“It was deplorable that the Long Beach Police Department at the time was willing to pay a bounty to these two actors, conmen to entrap gay men not only in public places, but also in their own homes for the appearance of being ‘morally’ tough on crime,” said Sean Gray, artistic director at the Long Beach Playhouse.
“It ruined many of these men’s lives, and caused at least one man to commit suicide,” he said.
“There are still people who endorse this kind of prejudice and punishment for LGBT people,” Gray said. “LGBT people are still victims of hate crimes and prejudice. Even 104 years later, this story still resonates for many of us.”
Notably, in 2016, 102 years later, a Long Beach Superior Court judge dismissed a case of alleged lewd conduct by a gay man and admonished the Long Beach police for discriminating against and targeting gay men for arrest in undercover sting operations.
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Playhouse Executive Director Madison Mooney says the story is important to tell because it’s a way “to talk about the importance of human rights and civil rights, and the ease with which both can be violated by small-minded and vindictive people, particularly those with political power.”
GAY STING OPERATIONS
Eventually, the two masquerading actors conducted various sting operations in the summer of 1914 at public places and private residences. In all, 31 men were arrested by Long Beach police.
When their names were published in the Los Angeles Times, 28 of them pled guilty; however, one of the men, Charles Lamb, a banker and member of the vestry at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, committed suicide.
The two remaining men, Herbert Lowe and Charles Espey, sued the city and won.
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“The Twentieth Century Way” is a two-actor play. Christian Jordan Skinner portrays Brown and Noah Wagner is Warren as well as all the other roles, including the victims, police chief, mayor, and attorneys.
The play explores themes of sexual identity, institutional corruption, and self-deception.
“The two men who took leading roles in the campaign were actors hired to lure other men into public sex so they could be arrested by Long Beach police.
“I was intrigued by the metaphor of ‘acting’ sexuality and its relationship to the social masks everyone wears in daily life,” Jacobson, the playwright, said in an interview. “I wondered what kind of person would enthusiastically take part in this kind of sting operation. The two actors brought this plan to Long Beach after being rejected by the Los Angeles Police Department, so it was clearly their idea,” Jacobson said.
“What was their sexuality and were they conflicted about it? Conflict is the essence of drama, and this internal psychological conflict was hard to resist as a topic,” he said.
DON’T FORGET HISTORY
Gray says the play is a chilling reminder of persecution targeted at the gay community, and, if given the chance, history could be repeated.
“It is all too easy to forget our history. Of course, as history shows us time and time again, people and organizations who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,” Gray said.
“In the eyes of many, gay men’s love and sexuality has always appeared suspect, and there are still many, that if given the chance, would be all too willing to make it a crime again,” he said. “This show is a reminder to us, and to our allies, of the terrible suffering caused by such criminalization.”