A new play celebrates the sensational trial of an unsung hero of Victoria’s gay history – on the site where the event took place. A Queer Trial, written by University of Victoria professor Dr. Jennifer Wise tells the real-life story of John Butt, an openly gay man who in 1860 was acquitted of sodomy charges by two successive juries – the first of which preferred to spend a night in jail themselves sooner than agree on a conviction. Wise found the story in an article by Terry Glavin while researching The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West, the site-specific comedy she wrote for Congregation Emanu-El’s 150th anniversary. Immersing herself in the archival documents and police-court transcripts, Wise realized that John Butt’s trial would make an ideal project for UVic students learning about site-specific theatre.
With funding from UVic’s Office of Community-University Engagement, Wise developed a new course for Department of Theatre students that began in January. The production of A Queer Trial is the culmination of the student’s work and incorporates the research and knowledge of members of BC’s Indigenous, LGBTQ2, Jewish, Black, and legal communities.
Students in the class are excited to present their months of work with this musical tribute to Victoria’s minority and marginalized communities. Recent political events have emboldened attacks on LGBTQ2, Black, and Jewish communities at home and abroad. A Queer Trial satirizes bigotry in all its forms.
“We’re going to be taking this beautiful message of tolerance and humanity right into the heart of the community.” says Wise. “As we celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, this play highlights an important part of our history and reminds us about how essential this message of tolerance is in our world today.”
Students are taking on key creative and production roles in A Queer Trial, from acting and singing to dramaturgy and historical research, from musical direction and choreography to costume design. The production uses the heritage buildings of Bastion Square to maximum effect, with a wrought-iron-gated doorway in Burnes House serving as the principal backdrop. Audiences will gather in front of the former Maritime Museum, once the city’s courthouse. From there they will be led by a “town crier” on a journey into the past.
A Queer Trial is performed in Bastion Square on Friday, April 14 at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Wise’s last site-specific play, The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West, won the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition in 2013. Her translation of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Methuen, 2013), created for the Phoenix in 2002 and now produced internationally, will be staged at the Shaw Festival and at Carnegie Mellon in 2017/18. Other plays include a version of Aristophanes’ Frogs (Phoenix, 2000), and Orbit, a drama about Galileo’s children written for the International Year of Astronomy (2009). Wise’s textbook The Broadview Anthology of Drama is adopted at universities across Canada and beyond. Her book Dionysus Writes (Cornell, 1998), about the invention of theatre in ancient Athens, is read around the world, and her research is published in such journals as Theatre Research International, Theatre Survey, Reader’s Digest, and Arethusa.
A Queer Trial is directed by UVic Theatre alumnus Matthew Payne, Artistic Producer of Theatre SKAM, a Victoria company acclaimed across Canada for its site-specific productions under bridges, in cars, at Heritage Acres, Macaulay Point, and, most recently, in a carpentry warehouse.