I was not familiar with the word nance until I looked it up after the announcement that Nathan Lane would be coming back to Broadway as the lead role in The Nance. A nance is an effeminate man and is sometimes also used to describe a gay man. I finally made it to The Nance last week and found, as is predictable, that Nathan Lane is terrific in the lead role, especially the comic aspects but also the sad aspects. I try to see Nathan Lane in whatever he does on Broadway and I am yet to be disappointed. He is a consistently brilliant performer, and for me The Producers and The Adams Family are just two examples of huge talent.
The Nance is an entertaining production but ultimately a very sad story. Nathan Lane plays Chancy Miles, a nance, both on and off the stage. For the early part of the story, Chancy’s life and success flourishes as a result of his vaudeville talent as well as a chance encounter with Ned. The encounter takes place in a Greenwich Village Horn & Hardart Automat. Automats rapidly disappeared when I was a young kid but I was one of many who were fascinated by having the food in little compartments, behind glass doors and just a nickel and a dime away. I’m clearly dating myself by remembering Automats, but when the last one in New York (42nd Street and Third Avenue) disappeared in 1991, I felt it was a real loss.
As The Nance evolves, Chancy and his behavior both on and off stage clash with increasingly conservative anti gay values and laws. He gets arrested, ultimately loses his job, and worst of all, he loses his significant other. Furthermore, vaudeville is dead in New York and Chancy can’t go elsewhere to work because of his parole board restrictions.
It’s nice to fast forward at moments like this and reflect on what has been a significant decline in discrimination in recent years. An African American President, and gay marriage are just two examples of what for me is a more free, more open, more tolerant world. I’m pleased to be alive at a time like this.
But I think we also have to remember what did happen, and be vigilant in making sure that progress is expanded and not eroded. We need to admit what we have done wrong. Our society and all societies have made and are still making mistakes. To airbrush history and sugar coat mistakes so that we look perfect and always virtuous is to deny reality. We have not always done the right thing, both at home and abroad. The mistakes we have made are serious, though overall our progress and our good work has been impressive.
In educating our kids from an early age, through lifelong learning, we need to pay special attention to teaching reality, the good, the bad, and the ugly. What we have accomplished and what we still have to do, is less likely to be taken for granted if we know where we started.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts