BOSTON — Everyone from Boston Mayor Tom Menino to actress Susan Sarandon have offered support. But a new Boston Children’s Theatre production about an old controversy is proving to be divisive still. Reflections of a Rock Lobster is a play about a real-life high school teenager who sued to bring his boyfriend to the prom.
Aaron Fricke doesn’t know where the conviction came from when in 1980 he sued his Cumberland, Rhode Island high school to take his boyfriend to the prom. He does know what he felt like—a rock lobster.
“It’s a metaphor I used for growing up gay, which is the idea of an animal a creature with a firm shell for defense but no claws for offense,” Fricke said.
Fricke’s 1980 lawsuit catapulted him into national headlines, especially when he won, thereby creating a precedent still exercised in courtrooms to this day.
“When I found myself speaking to constitutional lawyers and a federal judge telling them what it was like, what the world looked like through the eyes of a gay teenager,” Fricke explained, “I realized I had a lot to say to people and I had a lot that needed to be learned, really. Because the world can be a scary place for gay kids.”
Now 32 years later, Fricke’s book about the experience, Reflections of a Rock Lobster, has been adapted for the stage, with a world premiere by Boston Children’s Theatre. It’s a significant step, says the theater’s Artistic Director Burgess Clark.
“It seems nationally we’ve been getting an enormous amount of attention because we are the first children’s theater in the country to tackle the topics of bullying and the gay teen experience,” Clark said.
Clark, who also wrote and directs the play, has long wanted to adapt Rock Lobster, ever since reading Fricke’s book as a young gay man himself, when he says he couldn’t imagine having Fricke’s courage. So it’s not lost on Clark that an event three decades old is perhaps even more resonant today.
“I think it’s shocking in a different way,” Clark said. “I think the rash in teen suicides and things that have plagued the gay community. I don’t think it’s necessarily easier being a gay teen these days.”
Or even to show them. Rock Lobster presents the six-months leading up to Fricke’s prom, when he was bullied and literally pummeled by his peers. Clark says a number of administrators have declined to send students to the production. It’s true for star Ian Shaine’s own private school.
“Some of my teachers will be coming to opening night and some of my friends but the greater school wont’ be coming,” Shaine said. “I mean, they have their reasons.”
Beyond illustrating Fricke’s civil suit, the play plumbs the gay teen experience. There are dates, conversations about relationships and sex. Shaine, who plays Fricke, wants audiences to realize it’s simply every day life.
“There is very little difference between same sex relationships and heterosexual relationships. That everyone is human and we have human feelings like love that everyone shares together,” he said.
That sometimes can result in a happily ever after, as was the case with Aaron Fricke and his decidedly uneventful prom.
“The reason why the school administration said they weren’t going to allow us to go was they put it all on the kids. They said it was going to cause a riot. The kids were going to rise up and incite violence,” Fricke explained. “In fact, the kids showed them that it was not at what they planned. They had a good time with us, some of them shook our hands and said congratulations. Others just went off and had a good time on their own.”
Reflections of a Rock Lobster plays at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston’s South End through this Sunday.