This is a Culture War story with a happy ending. Act I unfolds in Jesse Helms’s backyard— Charlotte, North Carolina— where 17-year-old Samantha Gellar won a Young Playwright’s contest last February for her short drama Life Versus the Paperback Romance. The four other victors saw their plays produced at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, while Gellar became the first winner in the history of the contest to be denied a production. Rob Odum, spokesman for Children’s Theatre, summarizes Life quite beautifully: “It’s a love story about meeting and getting to know someone and breaking through barriers. The fact that they happen to be two women is almost immaterial.”
Al-l-l-most. Of course, every Culture War fan knows what happens when a public dollar passes near a homosexual, so let’s skip the familiar tropes of Act II for the moment— the waffling, buck-passing, and intimations of apocalypse— and peek ahead at our showstopping finale, in which the homophobia gets offset by powerful homos and their straight allies.
On Monday, June 14, Gellar’s play will be performed at New York’s Public Theater by Lisa Kron and Mary-Louise Parker, directed by Jo Bonney, dramaturged by Paula Vogel. Kate Clinton hosts. Letters of support for Gellar have come in from Dorothy Allison, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Leslea (Heather Has Two Mommies) Newman, and others, and they’ll be read by the likes of Lea DeLaria, Kathleen Chalfant, and Carmelita Tropicana. Terrence McNally and George C. Wolfe are scheduled to speak as well. The evening benefits both Time Out Youth, the Charlotte organization advocating for gay teens, and the umbrella organization for all such queer kid groups, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.
Sam Gellar wrote Life Versus the Paperback Romance in three days when she was 16. Children’s Theatre director Scott Miller had encouraged her to enter the playwriting contest, so she submitted that piece along with a second play called The Commissionable, “a parody of our government in Charlotte.” When she brought the plays in, though, she warned Miller that “there’s some pretty crazy stuff here.” Mostly, she meant, in The Commissionable: “It flat out insulted their funders.”
Over the years, Gellar had taken classes at Children’s Theatre and appeared there in a musical. “I’m an actress too,” she says, “and I really saw the Children’s Theatre as a space to look up to. They have the Ensemble, which is the most coveted group on earth— in Charlotte. Everybody who’s a teenager wants to get in.”
Gellar, who just finished her junior year in high school, describes herself as “rarely discouraged.” After she found out that Children’s Theatre would produce all the winning plays but hers, she says, “I was so excited just to have won, I didn’t consider the fact that, you know, these people are being biased.” They had sent her off with best wishes to find another theater, raise some money, and stage the play herself.
Enter Tonda Taylor, founder and director of Time Out Youth, Charlotte’s gay teen group. Gellar went to her looking for money for Life, and when Taylor learned what had happened, she hit the ceiling. “I was ready to picket.” Then she reconsidered and called The Charlotte Observer.
The town had already weathered a homo panic in ’96 when Angels in America played at Charlotte Rep, prompting county commissioners to defund the arts in ’97. Keith Martin, Charlotte Rep’s managing director, says the best thing to come out of that experience was an informal network (“the arts community, the gay community, the moderate citizenry”) ready to respond to censorship problems.
There’s been an outpouring of support for this lesbian teen who hasn’t yet decided whether she wants to be a writer, an actress, a stuntwoman, or god-only-knows. The benefit at the Public has been organized by Holly Hughes, who happened to be in North Carolina, teaching at Duke, when the story broke in February. Hughes immediately recognized the old
political-realities scenario. It was John Frohnmayer, then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, who said he was only facing “political realities” when he took away NEA grants awarded to Hughes (and Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck) in 1990. By defunding them to appease the frothers on the right, Frohnmayer became complicit with the enemy.
“My experience of censorship is that a lot of people know it’s the wrong thing, that homophobia is wrong,” says Hughes, “but they’re scared to really challenge it. On the right, they smell that fear, and they know they can get away with it. They’d love it if we privatized gay expression.” To Hughes, the Children’s Theatre is now playing the complicit role. They should be “roasted over the coals,” she says.
“It hasn’t been fun for us to be labeled as the bad guy in this,” says Rob Odum at Children’s Theatre. “It’s a pretty complex issue when you’re talking about kids. Does the parent have the right to determine what their kid is exposed to when it comes to issues of sexuality? That’s one of the issues here. We’re certainly not for censorship, although at the same time as a children’s theater we list age-appropriateness for all our plays as guidelines for parents. Kids who come and see The Velveteen Rabbit may not be ready for Of Mice and Men. Or To Kill a Mockingbird. Is that censorship?”
Odum says the audience for Gellar’s play would have included middle-school children, possibly as young as 10, and what if some of them had come with younger siblings? The play was not “age-appropriate.” He also points out that they are operating under the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school rules, and Gellar’s play “fell outside of their guidelines.”
Asked what exactly the guidelines are, Odum replies, “I would really rather you talk to the school system about that. We have been a little bit frustrated with the fact that they have not really clearly articulated what that is.” He suggested calling the Board of Education— and the board suggested a call to Sam Gellar’s principal.
Dr. Charles LaBorde, principal at Northwest School of the Arts, finally shed some light on the guideline that dare not speak its name. “There are two topics they do not allow teachers to discuss in health class anymore: homosexuality and masturbation,” LaBorde explains. This was the “community standard” established for the health curriculum (Family Living, Ethical Behavior, and Human Sexuality) about six years ago by a group of ministers, health professionals, and other concerned citizens.
LaBorde chuckles at the runaround I’d gotten on the “guidelines” but adds that he thinks the Children’s Theatre is very progressive.
The problem for gay kids is that their entire lives are censored. I asked Samantha Gellar what it would have meant to her to see a play such as Life Versus the Paperback Romance in middle school. “Oh God, it would have been great. I mean, if I had ever seen a positive reflection of what I was dealing with, it would have been fabulous. The first time I saw anything about lesbianism, it was in Higher Learning. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that movie, but it pretty much insinuates that the girl becomes a lesbian because she was raped. For a while, I thought I would have to be raped to become a lesbian,” she laughs. “We get so many misconceptions from the way it’s usually portrayed. I think if we give a truthful, loving interpretation to middle schoolers, it’s not going to hurt them. Even two-year-olds. Heather Has Two Mommies is the perfect thing to read to your kid if you want them to understand it as they’re growing up. I just don’t understand the silence.”
For tickets ($50), call the National Youth Advocacy Coalition at 202-319-7596, ext. 13.