A locked file titled "Secret Court," found in the Harvard University archives, would be enough to get any journalist's blood pumping. It did for student journalist Amit Paley, who stumbled upon a cache of suppressed papers in 2002 and soon uncovered a dark chapter in the institution's history, one that had remained hidden for more than 80 years. Paley's subsequent article in Harvard's student newspaper, The Crimson, thrust the story into the national spotlight.
The true tale of that court and its victims will be told in Unnatural Acts, a new play at Classic Stage Company in June and July. The work was conceived and directed by Tony Speciale, who read an article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis in OUT magazine about the secret court in 2003 and knew immediately that he "would work on it in a play format some day."
The tragic story takes place in 1920, and begins and ends with suicide. The first death, of Harvard student Cyril Wilcox, sparked an investigation conducted undercover and run by five men appointed by Harvard.
Acting on information that Wilcox's death was somehow related to a homosexual subculture on campus, the court's aim was to expose and expel those involved. Ultimately, the university convicted 14 men of "homosexualism," including seven undergraduates, who were asked to leave school. "They thought they were cleaning house," says Speciale, "and were doing right by investigating a situation that had gotten out of control. In the course of that, though, several lives are destroyed." Among them is Eugene Cummings, one of the persecuted students, who acts as the audience's primary guide in Unnatural Acts.
After his interrogation, Cummings, who had grown up with Wilcox in Fall River, MA, killed himself in the school infirmary. His death caused the secret court to shut down and quickly conclude its business.
In putting together the play, Speciale and his associates pored over 500 pages of documents, many of which were handwritten notes made by the court members.
"They had no secretary," says Speciale. "We don't know what the students said. There's lots of room for interpretation. This is not a docu-drama. It's our imaginative retelling of the story."
He hastily adds: "Our play is not a damnation of Harvard. It's an examination of a group of men at this time. Harvard is a lens through which we see these men. I don't think this is the only university that was doing this. They're just the only university that got caught."