MISSISSIPPI and NORTH CAROLINA: On March 23, in a hastily executed special session, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law HB2, which defines the state’s workplace discrimination policy to include protections for characteristics such as race, religion, and age, but pointedly not sexual orientation or gender identification. The law also overrides more inclusive local laws and dictates that people may only use public bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificate, effectively limiting rights of the state’s transgender population. (The bill also blocks cities or counties from instituting a minimum wage higher than the federally mandated $7.25.)
Two weeks later, on April 5, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed into law HB1523, a “religious freedom” bill that permits institutions and individuals with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to refuse service to transgender people, those in same-sex marriages, and people who engage in sex outside of marriage. The Mississippi ruling takes effect July 1.
In the weeks that followed, several U.S. state and city governments banned official travel to North Carolina; the NCAA threatened to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte; PayPal pulled out of a planned expansion there, taking 400 jobs with it; and Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams canceled concerts in Greensboro, N.C., and Biloxi, Miss., respectively.
On the theatre side, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz placed a moratorium on licenses for any of his works (among them Wicked, Godspell, and Pippin) to be performed in North Carolina, calling for other writers to join him. USITT, the membership organization for theatre design and tech workers, issued a statement refusing to hold events or otherwise do business in either North Carolina or Mississippi. And Cirque du Soleil announced last Friday that it was canceling the North Carolina stops in its OVO tour.
But for theatre artists living in Mississippi and North Carolina, these boycotts have been met with trepidation.
“People are struggling with how to be helpful,” noted Angie Hays, executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference (NCTC), a service organization for theatre in the state. “We’re conflicted on what advice to give.” On the one hand, artists and theatre leaders in North Carolina and Mississippi respect and support the spirit of protest against laws and governing bodies antithetical to the inclusive nature of theatre. But at the same time, many find such boycotts heartbreaking and isolating for the states’ arts sector.
“If these boycotts and bans are taken too far, you’re isolating the group you want to advocate for,” said Francine Reynolds, artistic director of New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Miss. “Where is the line? What is the right thing to do? I believe the right thing is to come here. Help the protests. Or have us do the play, and give a percentage of the royalties to the [Human Rights Campaign] or other grassroots campaigns.”
As an example, she pointed to Bob Dylan traveling to Greenville, Miss., in 1963, during the Freedom Rides. Perhaps in that vein, comedian Louis C.K. bucked the trend of artists canceling stops and performed three surprise shows April 13–14 in Asheville, N.C., with all proceeds going to Equality North Carolina, an LGBT rights organization.
“Last year we did Stop Kiss,” Reynolds continued, referencing Diana Son’s seminal work about a lesbian couple who are assaulted during their first kiss. “We partnered with the HRC, and they came for a Q&A, and we talked about issues in Mississippi. If Diana Son had said no, that opportunity would not have existed. Mississippians respond to the narrative of the individual more than I see in other states. Changing the heart and mind of one person with one story has a lot more power here than a ban.”
For now NCTC has stuck with the advice to let the business community take the lead on boycotts, while continuing to gather examples of the impact in the arts sector. Hays also emphasized that the situation is changing by the day. Indeed, on April 12, Gov. McCrory signed an executive order that expanded the state’s equal employment opportunity policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity—though the effectiveness of that order has been called into question, and many businesses have stated that the changes don’t go far enough.
Beyond boycotts and its ensuing economic impact, theatre leaders fear that potential collaborators and colleagues might choose to stay away. Vivienne Benesch arrived in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Jan. 1 to take on the artistic directorship of PlayMakers Repertory Company, in residence at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.
“I’m worried about seeing it affect admissions and who’s applying, who [the school] is drawing in terms of students and faculty,” she said. “This is one of the great public universities in the country, with a legendary foundation on social justice and inclusion. Having to navigate that history of values with the current temperature of the state is really difficult.”
A statement from UNC–Chapel Hill noted that while the bathroom clause of HB2 does apply at public educational institutions (private businesses and non-profits, including theatres, are allowed to set their own policies), the university will continue adding to its growing list of single-use and gender-neutral facilities throughout the campus.
Preston Lane, artistic director of Triad Stage in Greensboro, was in New York holding auditions right after the bill was passed; actors asked if it was safe to come to North Carolina. “That is a painful thing to hear,” he acknowledged. “We really pride ourselves on creating a welcome environment in Greensboro and at Triad Stage. Last year, I was auditioning Middle Eastern actors after the murders in Chapel Hill [of three Muslim-American students]. People asked, ‘Is it safe to come to North Carolina?’”
Despite recent events, this perception is wrong, Lane contended. “North Carolina has a stronger progressive tradition than conservative, but those have been battling each other since our first record of government. Right now is a particularly difficult time, but I have been telling actors that it is safe to come to North Carolina—and, more importantly, it’s important for them to be here. I think best way to create open society, create good citizens, create an accepting community, is having art and making art. That’s the reason I’m in North Carolina making my work.”
“I will say it has galvanized me to realize the importance of the work that we in cultural institutions in this state have to do,” said Benesch. Her 2016–17 season had a remaining TBA slot, and after HB2 was signed into law, she knew that this was the reason she had intuitively waited to fill it. “We’re actively seeking a trans* piece to program into that slot,” she reported. “It’s not to check a box, but an opportunity to have a very specific conversation, and when we have those opportunities right now, we must take them.”
For those doing inclusive work in theatre and the arts communities in these states, the notion that all denizens of Mississippi and North Carolina are intolerant or backwards stings. Reynolds pointed to a protest letter against HB1523 signed by 95 Mississippi writers, including John Grisham, Kathryn Stockett, and Donna Tartt; a blog post by the letter’s original author, Katy Simpson Smith, said that some have responded with quips like, “There are 95 people in Mississippi that can read and write? That number sounds high.”
“So the voices of the writers, artists, and cultural leaders definitely need to be heard,” Reynolds emphasized.
Sarah Hart is a former managing editor of this magazine. She lives in Asheville, N.C. Her family is from Mississippi.