“I have seen men railroaded before, but nothing compared with this vitriol.”
These chilling words are spoken by Abe Miller, a lawyer defending a homosexual against a variety of charges of gross indecency in Witch Hunt at the Strand, Workshop West’s new production now playing at the Backstage Theatre.
It is 1942, the height of the Second World War and same sex relationships are considered a criminal offence in Canada as they were in most Christian-based countries.
Although numerous resources were deployed to support the war effort, Edmonton Police and the RCMP spent months collecting evidence, arresting and charging 10 men for conducting same-sex liaisons in private.
Rumours flew thick and fast especially after a justice called the offences a “ring of bestiality” and the police’s morality squad was certain older men were luring younger boys into a life of perversion.
If anything, the officers and detectives actions mirrored the majority of the population’s view that as perversions go, homosexuals and pedophiles were no different.
However, the authorities efforts through persistent raids, a series of coercions, borderline false evidence, and shame-filled consequences tore apart friendships and families, and rippled far beyond Alberta’s borders.
After several of the men were sentenced to hard labour in prison, everyone was eager to sweep the event under the rug as if it never happened.
However, playwright-raconteur Darrin Hagen (Guys in Disguise), resurrected this dishonourable and shocking bit of history based on a series of trial transcripts, interrogations, private letters, actual testimony and information provided by family members of the accused.
Hagen recreates the human figures behind all the pain and suffering and focuses primarily on three key men. Harvey Kagna is former president of Edmonton Little Theatre Co., a man completely immersed in the city’s burgeoning theatre scene and its homosexual artists.
James Richardson is a composer, singer and railroad employee eager to translate his talents into full-time work. James exchanges letters with his lover, Patrick Folsinbee, now stationed with the military in the east. After a police raid, these letters are used as evidence to convict Richardson on counts of gross indecency.
Four of Edmonton’s finest actors play a total of 12 roles. They include Jesse Gervais, Doug Mertz, Davina Stewart and Mathew Hulshof.
Doug Mertz is particularly affecting as Harvey Kagna. Mertz slowly transitions Harvey from a proud, straight-backed, and yes, a flamboyant homosexual man boldly attracting attention to a sadder man, bent and broken, after serving time in prison.
In summing up his past life, Kagna said, “People had been looking the other way for so many years, I thought I was normal.” To reintegrate into society, he must resort to living a lie – the pretence of being heterosexual.
And Davina Stewart as Elizabeth Sterling Haynes, a prominent theatre figure and a good friend to both Kagna and Richardson, is the steady hand of compassion.
“I will defend your gifts and talents, but it may not be enough,” Haynes says to Kagna. She was right.
Witch Hunt at the Strand is riveting, painful, uncomfortable and definitely not an easy play to watch. It is however, food for thought.
It reminds us that all freedoms we cherish can be ripped away at the scribble of a pen and the fight for justice lies in our hands.
Witch Hunt at the Strand
Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Runs until Dec. 4
10330 – 84 Ave.
Tickets: Call 780-420-1757 or at tixonthesquare.ca