In the end, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told was performed without incident—inside the Academy of Music, at least. Outside the building, another story was taking place. All three performances last month attracted demonstrators on both sides—literally—facing off across the walkway leading to the Academy’s doors: on one side, folks who were outraged by the production, and on the other, those who supported the play and our right to perform it.
I didn’t dream of provoking controversy when I suggested staging Paul Rudnick’s comedy for PVPA, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, where I direct an annual production. I saw it as a highly theatrical piece with a wonderful gay-positive message, delivered satirically by turning some familiar stories from the biblical canon on their heads. In this version, the Garden of Eden is populated by two gay couples—Adam and Steve, Jane and Mabel—the Pharaoh of Egypt is a drag queen, and one of the lesbians is the vessel for an Immaculate Conception. I knew it would be edgy, but I chose it because it also wrestles with deep issues of faith, family and belonging.
The trouble started when a web-based outfit called America Needs Fatima got wind of our production and mobilized the followers of its Anti-Blasphemy web page. PVPA’s head of school, Scott Goldman, found his inbox inundated with “instant e-protest” messages. Some were heartfelt, others came couched in homophobic and anti-Semitic hate speech.
That deluge made the local papers, which ignited a nationwide chain reaction of publicity and protest. Bloggers and talk-radio hosts weighed in pro and con, Fox News devoted one of its “fair and balanced” “debates” to the brouhaha, and local churches were urged (from an out-of-state distance) to demonstrate against the performance. In the event, local churches did turn out—those supporting the production greatly outnumbering the protesters. Not surprisingly, the Valley boasts a goodly number of “open and affirming” Christian congregations, whose pastors recognized that much of the opposition was more about homosexuality than Scripture.
Indeed, many of the complainants charged that we were indoctrinating innocent children in “the homosexual agenda.” Ironic, since these days the homosexual agenda is about getting married. As one of the play’s character’s says, “Have you noticed how conventional and wholesome gay people are getting?”
I’m proud of what we did. Proud of the young cast, who gave their hearts and guts to the show in the face of intimidating dissent. Proud of PVPA’s staff and leadership, who defended the principle that to cancel the play would, as Goldman stated, “go against the grain of our unique, artistic, and intellectually rigorous PVPA community.” And I’m especially proud of the PVPA students who spoke up, against the tide of enthusiasm for the show, to express their own religious or moral qualms about the play while supporting their peers’ commitment to performing it.
In the end, far from closing us down, the protests attracted the school’s largest-ever audience for, excuse the expression, a straight play. And they made Most Fabulous more than just another school play, but an important learning experience, teaching us all that while theater can, and should, shake up settled pieties, communities can, and should, embrace controversy as an opportunity to embrace and debate differences.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.