Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America opened on schedule on a blustery Wednesday night last March, but it took a judge’s last-minute court order to prevent police in the Bible Belt city of 580,000 from arresting members of the cast. Fearing a public outcry to seven seconds of nudity called for in the script, the board of the North Carolina Performing Arts Center, Charlotte Rep’s own landlord, had sued to shut the play down.
Superior Court Judge Marvin K. Gray issued the temporary restraining order against the board and law enforcement agencies just three hours before curtain, and followed up a week later with an injunction to let the play continue through its run—which has been extended through May 5 to accommodate a record-breaking demand for tickets. A handful of protesters decrying “public nudity” and “pornography” picketed early performances, facing off with more numerous counter-demonstrators who rallied in support of the production.
With its focus on AIDS, gay life and politics, Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama, the most-honored play of recent years, has provoked confrontation in a city unused to discussions about artistic freedom and censorship. While in some ways indicative of cultures in collision, the donnybrook actually has more to do with one outmoded statute still on North Carolina’s books.
A very brief scene in the play’s first part, Millennium Approaches, in which the character Prior Walter disrobes for a physical examination in a doctor’s office, is technically against the law in North Carolina. The misdemeanor statute against indecent exposure, drafted to combat nude dancing, is seldom invoked in other situations unless members of the community complain about representations they find morally objectionable.
Enter the Rev. Joseph R. Chambers, an anti-pornography campaigner who has had many such objections in the past. Chambers has waged war against the popular children’s TV show Barney & Friends (“clearly occultic”) and Disney’s injection of “voodooism” into The Lion King. The minister, who heads a breakaway evangelical group, said he had not seen Angels but had read excerpts, and condemned the play for its “blasphemy,” homosexual themes and depiction of “unsafe sex.” It was Chambers who successfully arm-twisted city lawyers to alert Charlotte police to enforce the indecent exposure law if they received complaints—then orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to ensure that they would.
Eventually, Charlotte mayor Patrick L. McCrory checked in with his directorial advice: He urged Charlotte Rep to bow to “common sense” and change the disputed scene as, after all, “the Pulitzer Prize does not give you license to break the law.”
Author Kushner, who attended a third-night benefit performance in Charlotte, said that on principle he had no problem with altering the scene, but added that he refused to capitulate to production changes made in craven response to “homophobic bigotry.” Speaking to the Charlotte Observer, he called Chambers “a major-league wacko.”
Lending their voices of support to Kushner were artists more immediately at risk in the controversy: Charlotte Rep artistic director Steven Umberger, while allowing that he respected the protesters’ beliefs, asserted, “I will debate the play’s imagination, literary value and intelligence with anyone who has seen it.” Alan Poindexter, the actor playing Prior, stated that he was “willing to go to jail” to keep Angels aloft. Apparently, most Charlotte residents agree: The loudest chants heard outside the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center were (as reported by the Charlotte Observer): “What do we want? First Amendment! Where do we want it? Charlotte!”
While local support has been gratifying for the theatre, how the incident plays out on a national scale—and the attendant prejudice against their state that may linger—is the most nettlesome aspect of this ordeal for North Carolinians. David Hammond, associate director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in nearby Chapel Hill, is distressed that the rest of the country will look askance at a region that has produced fine theatre in the past. “For us, the climate has always been good,” he says, noting that all decisions regarding onstage nudity have previously involved aesthetic, not political, considerations. Hammond points out that the national tour of Angels played at Duke University’s Triangle Theatre in Durham “without a ripple” of controversy, but adds that “this new application of this law requires serious thought for theatres and directors.”
It is possible that, when and if the case goes to trial, the law might be changed. Charlotte Rep will maintain that the indecent exposure statute doesn’t apply to a work of serious artistic intent, a stand that has never been tested by the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the artists involved in the production are riding out the storm, triumphing by—literally, in actor Poindexter’s case—putting their bodies on the line. The event is a reminder of how thorny questions about politics, morality and sexuality overlap and are ultimately borne by the artist in negotiation with his community and his own conscience.
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