Know Your Lesbian Herstory in Patricia Cotter’s New Comedy

On Oct. 9, San Francisco Playhouse presents the world premiere of The Daughters, featuring characters based on Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. 

In Patricia Cotter’s play The Daughters, she imagines the first meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). During a recent phone interview, Cotter, a resident playwright at San Francisco’s Playwrights Foundation, explained that the DOB was “the first political, social, lesbian civil rights movement in America.” Set in San Francisco where the DOB was founded, the play is a “lesbian history comedy” that starts in 1955 and spans 60 years up to 2015 when the Lexington Club closed in the Mission. Marcia Gallo’s history of the lesbian rights movement, Different Daughters, was just one of the many books Cotter read as she did her research. But she also had the opportunity to meet and talk with the now 95-year-old Phyllis Lyon.

The protagonists in the play, Mal and Peggy, are loosely based on Lyon and her wife, the late Del Martin. They were the founders of the DOB and important lesbian figures in the history of San Francisco. In 2004, they were the first same-sex couple to marry in the city. When their marriage was voided, the California Supreme Court overturned that decision and they married again in 2008. When Cotter met with Lyon, she got to hear firsthand about what those initial meetings were like.

“To be in the house that she shared with Del, around all of their history, and the books they’ve written, that was pretty amazing,” she says.

Cotter based another character on the writer Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun). In her research at Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, Cotter read copies of the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder. This newsletter was a big deal.

“Women all over the country could find out about meetings,” Cotter says. “Or those who could never get to a meeting, could just hear something about being a lesbian.”

That’s how she discovered that Hansberry not only subscribed to The Ladder but also wrote them letters. She encouraged the DOB to keep going.

In the first act of The Daughters, Cotter brings a group of women together in 1955.

“[They] couldn’t date or dance in public, who had no legal way of meeting, and were afraid of getting hauled into jail,” she says.

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Between the start of the first and second acts, the playwright wanted to show “the continuum of where we started and where we are now.” When the Lexington, one of the last lesbian bars in San Francisco, is about to close in the second act, it poses a question.

“There’s a touch of history between them coming together,” Cotter says. “We progressed so far that we don’t even need this bar anymore. Or do we?”     

Apart from providing a historical context for the DOB, Cotter also wanted to write about different kinds of lesbians in this particular play.

“Because typically what I see — if I get to see a lesbian on stage — is one kind of lesbian,” she says. “Or maybe another type, but you never see a variety of women as you do in life.” Cotter believes that it’s actually not hard to find lesbian plays and playwrights, per se, but it is hard to find the ones getting produced.

It can be challenging to persuade theater producers that there’s an audience who will come to see a play with lesbian characters.

“In my experience, I have written a few plays that have had lesbian characters,” she says. “Not only do people come but the show will get extended because they’ll come again.” Cotter is especially excited about premiering the play here because “it really is a San Francisco story.”

The Daughters­,

Oct. 9-Nov. 2, a San Francisco Playhouse production at The Creativity Theater, 221 4th St., $30; 415-677-9596, or

Five Other Theatrical Events We’re Excited About

Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man

Sept. 20 – Oct. 20, FoolsFURY

Theater Company,

In this West Coast premiere, Kate Tarker updates the myth of Oedipus. Tarker says that in her version, “He comes from much humbler stock.” The family dysfunction will still be front and center but there’ll be a healthy dose of both comedy and tragedy.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Sept. 11 – Oct. 12, Z Space,

“With my cross-bow/I shot the Albatross.” Word for Word returns to Z Space with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem about the long-suffering mariner — with choreography by Nol Simonse and video projections by Hana Kim (A.C.T.’s The Great Leap). The stage itself will be turned into a sailing ship!

Top Girls

Sept. 19 – Oct. 13, A.C.T.,

To every Anglophile’s delight, Caryl Churchill’s play opens the 2019-2020 Season at A.C.T. Expect a theatrical demonstration of Bono’s aphorism, “It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.” If you’d like an advance preview to see how good the writing is, search online for the BBC version with Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread).

Inked Baby

Sept. 12 – Oct. 5, Crowded Fire Theater,

Christina Anderson’s play considers the relationship between a husband and wife who haven’t been able to conceive and the surrogate who’ll bear their child. That the surrogate happens to be the wife’s sister only complicates their struggle to start a family.

The Great Wave

Sept. 12 – Oct. 27, Berkeley

Repertory Theatre,

Based on true events about a Japanese schoolgirl who went missing in 1979. To shape the story, Francis Turnly, who wrote the play, went to Japan to talk with people who knew what happened. The Great Wave looks at the aftermath of her disappearance and how it affects her mother and sister.

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