Culture War (reprise)

'Southern Rapture' documents 1996-97 arts funding melee

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: January 24, 2009 in Cover Stories

Artist: Chip Decker

CHARLOTTE — March 1996. The Charlotte Repertory Theatre was one of only six regional theaters selected by playwright Tony Kushner to present his seven-hour, two-part production, “Angels in America.” Praised by art critics and activists the world over, “Angels” delved headlong into the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, examining themes as diverse as homosexuality, the Reagan years and Mormonism. The backlash it received from conservative community members and elected officials created a firestorm of controversy and sparked a culture war in the Queen City threatening the future of arts funding and LGBT acceptance.

On April 15, the Actor’s Theater of Charlotte will resurrect this more than decade-old culture war in their production of “Southern Rapture.” The play is funded in part by the generosity of businessman and longtime Theater patron Michael Lakoff and a $4,000 grant from the gay-focused Wesley Mancini Foundation.

“Rapture” playwright Eric Coble, who currently lives in Clevelend, Ohio, and who has staged previous works with Actor’s, told Q-Notes he was familiar with the “Angels” controversy long before the theater’s executive director, Dan Shoemaker, approached him with the idea for comedic, fictionalized account of the events.

“Being a part of the theater community, I had heard about it,” Coble said. “I knew there had been a big dust-up about ‘Angels in America’ in Charlotte.”

Artistic Director Chip Decker says for years after the controversy, “Angels” was the first thing to come to mind when a person heard about Charlotte. “At the time, I think it was ‘Good Morning America’ that had a live debate on their show,” he said. “Like so many people, it embarrassed me. It just made us look foolish to the rest of the country. It was like two brothers fighting over the last Pop Tart.”

Coble and Decker say “Southern Rapture,” will be a way to talk frankly about issues like community values, norms and public art.

“It really makes its point through humor,” Decker said. “A lot of people can be more accepting of a particular point of view when it is laced with humor.”

Rolfe Neill, then chairman and publisher of The Charlotte Observer, spoke in opposition to a County Board of Commissioners resolution to strip $2.5 million from the Arts & Science Council. At least 700 attended the April 1, 1997, commissioners meeting. Photo Credit: Chris Radock.

Rolfe Neill, then chairman and publisher of The Charlotte Observer, spoke in opposition to a County Board of Commissioners resolution to strip $2.5 million from the Arts & Science Council. At least 700 attended the April 1, 1997, commissioners meeting. Photo Credit: Chris Radock.

The debate and controversy that completely engulfed the Queen City in March 1996 — and then a year later when the Mecklenburg County Commissioners stripped $2.5 million from arts funding — was no laughing matter. The fiasco brought a national spotlight down on a city striving to become a world-class, national banking and corporate powerhouse — a shining example for “the New South.”

Emotions ran high on both sides of the fence just days before “Angels” was due to open.

“These kind (sic) of events should be an example to all traditional Americans of what the radical gay community and those who support them actually intend for this nation,” conservative pastor Joe Chambers told reporters at a press conference on March 18, 1996, asserting he’d do all he could to keep the production from opening just two days later. “It is clear that Tony Kushner is a sick man with a homosexual agenda.”

Media personalities and journalists cranked out frenzied stories and gathered community leaders for interviews. The Charlotte City Council attorney said the governing body had no jurisdiction in the matter. The District Attorney’s office said they’d charge all involved parties under the state’s indecency laws — due to a less than 10-second, non-sexual nude scene — if the play went forward. The Charlotte Repertory Theatre and its director Keith Martin battled the management of the public Performing Arts Center. A local judge was even involved, as Charlotte Rep management sought out an injunction to keep authorities from pressing charges.

Protesters supporting the performance of Angels in America marched along N. Tryon Street at the Performing Arts Center in 1996. Photo Credit: Charlotte Observer file photo by Gary O’Brien.

Protesters supporting the performance of Angels in America marched along N. Tryon Street at the Performing Arts Center in 1996. Photo Credit: Charlotte Observer file photo by Gary O’Brien.

“In the play,” Decker said of Coble’s work, “it would have been too easy to poke fun at just the far right. Quite honestly it would’ve been very boring. Sometimes shots like that are just too easy to fire. It’s more interesting to present both sides for their ridiculousness.”

Decker added, “There certainly wasn’t a lot of humor at the time, but after a few years you look back at some of the people who were involved and what was said and done and it was all actually very funny.”

The artists aren’t the only ones who think emotions and situations back then were blown out of proportion. Republican County Commissioner Bill James, a fresh face on the board when the funding controversies hit in 1997, says he never objected to gay themes in art, despite how he’s been portrayed since then.

“I never believed having someone whose character is simply identified as gay is an issue at all,” he told Q-Notes. “I can sit here and watch ‘The Birdcage’ and I don’t really care.

“The issue was not the presentation of a concept,” he explained. “The issue with ‘Angels,’ in particular, was the overt sexuality and the mixing of religion. The way that Tony Kushner wrote it was to represent the homosexual position as being the righteous position and the Newt Gingriches and Republicans were evil and sinister. That’s what ignited the firestorm.”

He also insisted gay activists’ later claims of “ousting” four of the “Gang of Five” conservative board members who voted to strip arts funding is “completely overstated.”

“The gay community can’t oust anybody,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them.”

Conservative pastor Joe Chambers led the religious call to stop Angels in America at a press conference on March 18, 1996. Photo Credit: Q-Notes file photo.

Conservative pastor Joe Chambers led the religious call to stop Angels in America at a press conference on March 18, 1996. Photo Credit: Q-Notes file photo.

Coble, who also spoke to James in order to write “Southern Rapture,” admits that many of the issues from 1996 and 1997 are still around today. “We have some distance now, but the reverberations from it all are still being felt,” he said. “This certainly isn’t a dead issue at all.”

The playwright said he’s been struck by just how passionate everyone in the debate was and still is. “That is very admirable, I think, but its also a good recipe for comedy. Just what exactly are you willing to do for those strong beliefs? How far can people really go to prove a point that they were right?”

Michael Lakoff, a former Queen City businessman and philanthropist now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his partner and two boys, says his support of the Actor’s Theater and “Rapture” comes from a firm belief in putting “into your community what you expect to get out of it.”

“[Actor’s Theater] has always delivered thoughtful, insightful and fun ways to look at how we go about doing things,” Lakoff told Q-Notes in an email. Lakoff’s patronage was made “without strings attached.” He says he’s proud of the choice Decker and Shoemaker have made.

Living in Charlotte during the “Angels” controversy, Lakoff said it was “an exciting time” when “many of the ‘elephants in the room’ for Charlotte as a community were identified.”

Charlotte-area actors stage a draft reading of Southern Rapture. Photo Credit: Chip Decker.

Charlotte-area actors stage a draft reading of Southern Rapture. Photo Credit: Chip Decker.

He added, “Through this identification, I feel that much of the strength of the LGBT community today was born. We cannot sit and watch the world turn without rising to demand fair and equal treatment. Constant vigilance is needed at all times in order to keep the balance. I am thankful for the turbulent times in 1996.”

The Queen City’s has come far since those days. The city now boasts a strong and vibrant arts scene — with plenty of private funding to keep ground-breaking works like “Angels” and “Southern Rapture” alive. Charlotte’s LGBT community has grown, too. It’s local Lesbian & Gay Community Center produces one of the largest gay and transgender Pride festivals between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. The Mecklenburg Gay and Lesbian Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), still visible and active in local politics today, was an outgrowth of the 1998 effort to defeat the conservative “Five.” Only Bill James remains.

Coble said he’s not sure what messages Charlotteans will take from the play. He’s looking forward to seeing the reactions of audience members, especially if the production should ever make it into other regions.

“I really don’t know what message will come through in Charlotte,” he said. “This argument has happened in every community, every city, of every size. Pieces like these have brought into light issues of art, homosexuality, freedom of expression and community values. I hope this play can be the fulcrum point of conversation about these issues everywhere.”

[Ed. Note -- In the Jan. 24 print edition, Q-Notes mistakenly identified Rolfe Neill as Hugh McColl, Jr., former CEO of then-NationsBank. We apologize for any confusion. A correction will run in the Feb. 7 print edition.]