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Judith sheds Light on Lombardi

Gay and HIV activist Judith Light stars in Broadway’s new hit play about the legendary NFL coach

By Cyd Zeigler

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What could a play about the roughest, toughest, most legendary coach in NFL history have to do with a gay audience? You might be surprised, but there’s plenty in the current Broadway run of “Lombardi on Broadway” to keep theatergoers of any sexual orientation intrigued and entertained.

At the top of that list is the performance of actress Judith Light who plays Vince’s wife, Marie. Light is best-known for her long-running stint as Angela Bower on the hit TV series, Who’s the Boss. Light has long been an advocate for the equality of gay and HIV-positive people. In fact, she said the overarching theme of Lombardi is exactly what drew her to the gay community in the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“This was a community that rose to its feet as one body that had a vision and a goal to take care of its own,” she remembers. “They wouldn’t be dragged down by the AIDS epidemic and instead lifted themselves up in the world.”

“Lombardi on Broadway” is much the same, Light said. With football as the backdrop, the play explores the power of personal relationships and the importance of setting aside your own personal needs for the good of the many.

“It looks at human beings and how they operate with each other,” Light said. “How people operate as a team, what happens to people when they have their own desires and agendas, and what happens when you’re willing to surrender those to the vision of one person.”

The story takes place from 1957-1965 and follows the Lombardis, three Green Bay Packers players and a plucky journalist trying to uncover the secrets to Vince’s success on the football field. It’s also a love story about how this married couple became the king and queen of Green Bay.

While his character isn’t in the play, the story also hints at Vince Lombardi’s gay brother, Harold. By all accounts, Vince loved his gay brother and was the driving force behind his family’s acceptance of Harold.

At one point during the play Marie talks about Vince being mad at her for missing a game in San Francisco because she went shopping with Harold. The Packers lost that game. Marie says of Harold:

“He’s nothing like my husband, though Vince adores him. But Harold won’t go near a football field.”

Light says she always hears a couple scattered chuckles from the few audience members who know about Lombardi’s gay brother.

According to Light, Vince was incredibly gay-friendly even beyond his brother’s sexuality. Growing up in New York City hearing anti-Italian epithets had a lasting impression on the man and he wouldn’t tolerate discrimination of any kind. While it isn’t addressed in the play, Lombardi coached two of the only four NFL players to come out of the closet after their retirement: David Kopay and Jerry Smith, both during his one season with the Washington Redskins.

His intolerance for discrimination also translated into his relationship with his wife. At a time when women were struggling to get out of the kitchen, Vince made Marie his equal, according to Light. While it was Vince’s vision the couple followed throughout their marriage, it was Marie’s moxie and refusal to lose who she was that drove their marriage to success. Players recognized it and regularly came to Marie for help putting Vince back in his place when he got out of line.

As her life came to revolve more and more around football, Marie became a fan of the sport for the same reason that some gay men find themselves drawn to the sport.

“I like boys. Boys like football. I like football,” Marie would say.

Light has also found herself falling for the sport. A tennis and basketball fan at heart, she now pauses at the NFL stories in the sports pages.

“Marie’s a football fan so I’m a football fan,” Light said.

In working on the play, Light has also found intense similarities between sports and her own chosen profession of acting.

“The dedication to their chosen field requires great discipline and great awareness and great care and intelligence,” Light said. “So I find myself looking at what they do and having a great deal of respect for their vision and their sport and for what they give us in the public. I’m really in awe of what they do. I’m coming to care about how they are taken care of, that they are protected and the rules protect them.”

Light feels that, just as she fell for the material despite not being a football fan before it, there’s plenty to offer a gay audience member who may not have an interest in the sport, and they might find themselves pausing on an item about the Jets in the New York Times the next day.

“I think they will appreciate it because they will see it’s not really about football,” Light said. “It’s about something much larger. Sports are about life and people’s psychology. Sport teaches you about that, about staying present in every single moment.”

The play’s run has been extended through June 19 at the Circle in the Square Theater on West 50th Street in Manhattan. You can find more information and order tickets at the play’s Web site.