As a student at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2004, Berry Newkirk had an important decision to make: Should he drop trou on stage?
He was 20 years old when he first played Prior Walter in Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The Tony-award-winning play contains the briefest of nude scenes, featuring a doctor examining Prior, a gay man dying of AIDS. Newkirk's director left the decision to bare all to Newkirk, who decided to keep his privates covered. He felt nudity would become the singular focus of that scene and maybe even of the entire play.
After all, that's what happened in Charlotte in 1996.
When the late Charlotte Repertory Theatre debuted Angels, a small band of vocal right-wingers dubbing themselves "Concerned Charlotteans" helped the city make The New York Times: "Alan Poindexter dropped his pants on stage in Charlotte for seven seconds Wednesday night, and nothing happened," Times writer Kevin Sack wrote.
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) will call the Angels back home when it stages what director Charles LaBorde calls a "modern classic" May 7 through May 31. The play hasn't been performed in Charlotte since the 1996 shitstorm.
A LOOK BACK
Somewhere between 65 and 130 protestors — The Observer and The Times accounts differ — led by the Rev. Joseph Chambers of Paw Creek Ministries (he and the church are still active), demonstrated on the opening night of Angels, in 1996. They were incensed that the publicly supported Arts and Science Council (ASC) funded Charlotte Rep and that Charlotte Rep would produce a play that allowed a man's private parts to be public for a few seconds. They may have been more incensed about the, you know, portrayal of homosexuals in the play, but the group's protests focused primarily on the nekkidness. They cited a North Carolina law prohibiting the willful exposure of private parts in any public space.
"Despite the efforts of Pentecostal preachers," the Times story continues, "outraged demonstrators, callers on radio talk shows, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney and the board of the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the show ... went on.
"The play ... only proceeded with the protection of a last-minute court order. Less than three hours before the curtain, a judge told local officials not to carry out threats to arrest cast members for indecent exposure."
But protesters and critics had made their point loud and clear. In Creative Loafing's 25th anniversary edition in 2012, theater critic Perry Tannenbaum looked back at the debacle, writing: "The core of the religious right's argument was that Kushner's work was government-funded." The County Commission agreed and snatched $2.5 million in funding from the ASC. Eventually, Charlotte would vote out four of the five commissioners (known as the "Gang of Five" — specifically Tom Bush, George Higgins, Joel Carter, Bill James and Hoyle Martin) who cast that fateful ballot.
Everyone knows governments are supposed to fund wars — not art, and certainly not art that "concerned citizens" find uncomfortable. The mid-1990s witnessed a raging culture war between envelope-pushing artists, such as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work included depictions of fisting and rough gay S&M, and conservative lawmakers who objected to the federal National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding their work. It was a battle of expression vs. censorship, and with Angels, ASC president Robert Bush recalls Charlotte being caught up in the frenzy. "There was a move to defund the NEA after the Mapplethorpe controversy. This was a very volatile time in the arts world."
At the heart of the matter, though, was a different issue altogether. In 1990s Charlotte, some people considered gays perverts, and part of the County Commission resolution defunding the ASC read that the county was cutting funds to groups that offered "exposure to perverted forms of sexuality."
Wait a tick. So, it wasn't really the "indecent exposure" that set people off?
"Despite what anybody may have said at the time, it was the gay theme, period," says LaBorde. In fact, he says another Charlotte theater was performing Equus at the same time Angels in America was being produced. "It has extensive male and female nudity, yet there were no complaints.
"Interestingly, there is also female nudity in Angels, but no one seems to bat an eye at that," LaBorde continues. That scene involves a "less-than-successful sexual encounter between Harper and her straying husband, Joe," he says. The nudity in the show, he says, is "pretty limited."
It may be the only thing limited about Kushner's sweeping, two-part opus that's boldly subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes."
Though nearly impossible to summarize, here's an attempt: It's about AIDS, gays, closeted gays, religion in general and Mormonism specifically, heaven and hell. A character named Roy Cohn is based on the real Roy Cohn, a prominent lawyer who played a key role in the Rosenbergs' McCarthy-era espionage trial. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is also a character. And there's a nurse named Belize who's a former drag queen. While the play is primarily concerned with religion, sexuality and confronting death, the far-reaching work also touches on race, gender and politics. (Necrophilia and incest may be the only taboo topics not covered in Angels. But, hey, you can plow only so much ground in seven hours. Yes, seven hours.)
The play deals frankly with AIDS during the mid-1980s, when the disease was still a death sentence. It shows, up close, what someone with AIDS would look like — gaunt, ghostly, covered in lesions.
LaBorde says the play helped usher in a watershed moment for gays. Around the time it debuted on Broadway, he says, "Gay people stopped apologizing. They became a major voice in politics."
When the play's hero, Prior Walter, proclaims, "I'm not dead yet," he's speaking for all gays who felt marginalized.
"He's basically saying, 'We're not going anywhere,'" LaBorde says.
Rev. Deborah Warren, founder, president and CEO of Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), was living in Charlotte when Angels premiered in the '90s and recalls discussions about gay rights and anti-discrimination. "The influence of the 'traditional family values' movement seemed to be still going strong," she says.
About a year after the show's run at the Rep, some Charlotteans got around to talking about what it was that really got under their skin. An April 2, 1997, Charlotte Observer story that recounted the historic County Commission vote quoted one concerned citizen: "'I am totally against funding things I'm opposed to,' said Virginia McGinn, 64. 'Homosexuals can do whatever they want, but I don't want to pay for them. I believe in the Bible, and the Bible is against homosexuality.'"
Tom Bush, one of the "Gang of Five," still practices law in Charlotte. He predicts the return of Angels will be a "non-event," met with no controversy, and says, "Nineteen years is a long time. That age has gone by."
When asked if he's mellowed over the years or if his position has evolved — or if people misunderstood him — he sounds philosophical. "I don't know if I was misunderstood, or if I misspoke. I may have been primitive in the language I used. I wanted to make the point that government has a duty to protect homosexuals — the same duty government has to all citizens." But, he says, government should not be in the business of advocating a particular lifestyle.
And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Another minister — this time, First Baptist Church of Charlotte's Mark Harris — is making headlines now. He, along with the Baptist State Convention, successfully fought for Amendment One to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution in 2012, and he is now vying for Democrat Kay Hagan's U.S. Senate seat. (On the upside, a group of pastors has recently filed a lawsuit challenging Amendment One for not allowing them to practice their religion and perform marriages for same-sex couples.)
THE LINGERING EFFECTS
Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, was leading ASC in 1996. He says the city learned a lot from the Angels episode, "not the least of which is that art is much more than an aesthetic experience. We are a different city for having had the controversy, the debate and the resolution."
Controversy often impacts ticket sales in one way or another. It did so for the first rendition of Angels, whose opening night sold out. But the controversy also helped fundraising. The first annual campaign conducted by ASC after the Angels in America fiasco was one of its most successful ever, Marsicano says. It drew an additional $1 million in new financial support. "ASC emerged from the controversy much stronger in financial standing than it went into the controversy," he says.
"We talk about it in our leadership development program," says Robert Bush, ASC's current head. "People who are going to serve on arts boards need to know they may have to deal with attempts at censorship."
The controversy still informs ASC's operating guidelines. The organization now requires grant applicants to have a written communications plan detailing how they will inform the public of potentially controversial subject matter, Bush says. There was no such requirement pre-Angels.
"But there has been no impact whatsoever on the decisions we make about what gets funded," Bush says of the Angels episode.
LaBorde says Charlotte is ready this time, although he adds, "I'm not naïve enough to think that there aren't still people who are uninformed, resentful and openly hostile. But acceptance has moved so far."
Bush points out that the potentially offensive Book of Mormon played Charlotte last year and there was no outcry. In fact, Tom Gabbard, president of Blumenthal Performing Arts, says he and his team had "no hesitation" about bringing the show to town. They committed to the play just two weeks after it opened on Broadway. "We work hard to communicate a warning and advise people to do some homework to decide whether a particular show is for them," Gabbard says. "Just because a show wins a bunch of awards, we can't assume that people know all about it and understand what they are seeing."
DIFFERENT THIS TIME
Staging the once-controversial play was former CAST executive director Crystal Dempsey's idea, though she shares credit with CAST's former board chair, Steve Dunn. LaBorde says Dempsey approached him and said, "We need to do a tent-pole piece like Angels."
LaBorde championed the idea, but jokes, "The play is so massive, and I'm so old." He was willing to direct, but wanted to share responsibilities with a co-director. He asked Thom Tonetti to join him. Angels marks the third time the two have collaborated. They've been doing table reads with the cast for nearly a year.
No one in or involved with this Angels saw Charlotte Rep's production. Even LaBorde, a fixture on the Charlotte theater scene for decades, was directing another play at the time and didn't get to see the one that sparked controversy.
Berry Newkirk, who'll portray the hero again, may not have seen the Charlotte Rep production, but he calls his first experience in Angels as Prior "overwhelming." The director of that UNC-Chapel Hill rendition wanted her actors to understand what an AIDS patient with a death sentence feels like. She brought in people whose lovers had died of the disease and an expert on blood-borne diseases from the local hospital. "We were indoctrinated into this world," Newkirk says. "We were steeped in this. We got to understand what the disease did to a body and about the stigma of having it."
He's only done Part I from the two-part work and is eager to tackle the second half. "I feel like I never got closure as Prior," he says. "I didn't get to finish. I need to play this part so I can have that."
He'll also fully disrobe this time. The nudity — and remember, it's minimal — isn't meant to titillate. It takes place in a clinical setting: when a nurse is examining Prior's Kaposi's sarcoma-covered body.
The old uproar over the few seconds of nudity strikes Newkirk as bizarre. He sees the play as a deeply spiritual journey. "Angels is ultimately about the tenacity of the human spirit against impossible odds," he says. "Prior knows he's dying. He's looking for something to hold on to."
As he searches, Prior has conversations with angels. Newkirk says it's left up to the audience to decide if Prior is communing with something holy or going crazy.
Will people see the great work as a modern classic and spiritual journey, instead of a peep show? "I expect no controversy this time around," says Marsicano, former ASC president. "Charlotte is a city with greater diversity of thought, experience and aesthetic taste than it was in the mid-1990s. We have also learned many ... lessons that have stuck with us, including the value of intellectual and artistic freedoms."
Debbie Warren says we've become a much more accepting city since 1996. Mecklenburg County was one of just eight North Carolina counties to vote against Amendment One. She cites the acceptance in the workplace as another example. "Our largest corporations lead by example, treating LBGT employees with respect and dignity, and several have pushed for equality in our city and state," she says. "We have openly gay and gay-affirming politicians. We have numerous open and affirming faith communities."
Still, she believes the message of Angels needs to be heard today. "We've made incredible progress in treatment options, but I'm sorry to report that HIV/AIDS has really taken hold of my beloved South," she says. "Half of all new HIV infections reported in the United States are in the South."
Angels is a timely reminder that AIDS hasn't gone away. "Our neighbors living with HIV/AIDS can't be forgotten," she says.
Newkirk, too, has been considering the significance of Angels' return to the Queen City. "We've come a long way," he says. "You've got several states that have overturned the ban on gay marriage. At the same time, we recently had Franklin Graham — whose father was always about God's love for everyone — saying he agrees with Putin's stance on gays.
"As far as we've come, you think maybe we haven't come far enough."