There were, in my estimation, many interesting people at the first performance of Almost, Maine in Hickory NC this past Thursday night.
To begin with, there was the author, John Cariani, who had come out to support the production, something he can’t do very often given how frequently his show is produced around the country. There was Jack Thomas, who produced the New York City premiere of Almost, Maine a decade ago. There was the doctor who had helped to found OutRight Youth of Catawba Valley, a support center for LGBTQ young people in this rural North Carolina region, which the performances, in part, benefited. There were the two women who were part of the local “Friends of the Library,” who knew little of the show but just wanted to support the effort. There was a high school drama teacher from the Raleigh-Durham area who had driven two and a half hours to see the show – and had to drive home that very night.
Oh, and there was the guy out on the street as I entered the building who was carrying a cross and shouting about how we were all going to hell for supporting homosexuality, and that God had very specific intentions for how humans should use their genitalia in relation to one another – though he was somewhat less circumspect than I just was in his phrasing.
This production of Almost, Maine in Hickory was originally to have been produced at Maiden High School in nearby Maiden NC, but the show was canceled, after rehearsals had begun, when the school’s principal buckled to complaints about gay content and sex outside of marriage, reportedly from local churches (one made itself known publicly shortly before performances began). Due to the determination of Conner Baker, the student who was to have directed the show at the high school and ended up performing and co-directing, and with the tireless support of Carmen Eckard, a former teacher who had known many of the students since she taught them in elementary school, the show was shifted to Hickory, where it was performed in the community arts center’s auditorium.
There were shifts in casting due to schedule changes, due to the show no longer being school-sanctioned, due to the need to travel 15 miles or so to and from Maiden to Hickory. But nine young people, a mix of current and former Maiden High students and a few students from local colleges, made sure that Catawba County got to see Almost, Maine, the sweet, rueful comedy that is hardly anyone’s idea of dangerous theatre.
Save for Cariani and Thomas, I hadn’t anticipated knowing anyone at the show that evening, though I had been in communication with Eckard and Baker since the objections first arose at Maiden High. But I was very pleased to spot Keith Martin, the former managing director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre, now The John M. Blackburn Distinguished Professor of Theatre at Appalachian State University, who I knew from my days as a manager in LORT theatre, but hadn’t seen or spoken with in more than a decade. Keith’s presence had a special resonance for me, because nearly 20 years ago, before the cast of Almost, Maine was born, he had been at the center of one of the most significant and ugly efforts to censor professional theatre in that era, namely community and political campaigns to shut down Charlotte Rep’s production of Angels in America, a national news story at the time which saw lawsuits, injunctions, restraining orders and even the de-funding of the entire Charlotte Arts Council, all in an effort to silence Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” The efforts failed, but left scars.
I spoke with Keith a few nights after we saw Almost, Maine, and even as he recounted – and I recalled – the fight over Angels, he told me of two other censorship cases in North Carolina in the 1990s. The first, with which I was familiar and which played out over much of the decade, began in 1991, when a teacher named Peggy Boring was removed from her school and reassigned due to her choice of Lee Blessing’s play Independence for students, which was deemed inappropriate by administrators. Boring didn’t accept the disciplinary action and brought suit against the school system, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately let stand a lower court decision which said that Boring’s right to free expression did not extend to what she chose for her students, an key precedent for all high school theatre and education.
The second occurrence which Keith told me about took place in 1999, when five young playwrights won a playwriting contest at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte – but only four of the pieces were produced. The fifth, Samantha Gellar’s Life Versus the Paperback Romance, was omitted to due its inclusion of lesbian characters. The play was ultimately produced locally under private auspices and also got a reading at The Public Theater in New York with Mary-Louise Parker and Lisa Kron in the cast, but in the wake of the Boring case and Angels in America, it couldn’t be seen in North Carolina in a public facility or produced using public funds.
As we talked, as he told me firsthand accounts of situations both known and unknown to me, Keith was very concerned that I might focus too much on him when I sat down to write. It’s hard not to want to tell his story – or, perhaps, his stories – in greater detail. But since we both went to Hickory to celebrate Almost, Maine and the people who made it happen, here’s just a handful of the very smart and pertinent thoughts he shared.
Why had he made the hour-long trip to Hickory? Because, he replied, “When one of us is threatened, we as a theatre community are all at risk.”
Why is this important even in high school? “Teenagers aged 13 to 17 are, I believe, among the most marginalized voices in America today,” said Martin. “It’s ironic, because they’ve developed a sense of place, they have a spirit of activism, but they’re not yet of a legal age to give voice to their passion.”
Regarding efforts to minimize controversy in theatre production, Keith said, “Theatre has always been the appropriate venue for the discussion of difficult subjects and it provides a respectful place where people of goodwill who happened to disagree about different sides of an issue can see that issue portrayed on stage and then have a healthy, informed debate.
Is there something special about North Carolina that led to these high profile cases emerging from the state? “Angels in America was portrayed as having happened in a southern, bible belt town. But what happened after that?” Keith asked me, going on to cite the controversies and attempts to silence Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi at Manhattan Theatre Club and My Name is Rachel Corrie at New York Theatre Workshop.
As I said at the beginning, there were many interesting people at the opening of Almost, Maine. I suspect the students in the show didn’t know, or even know of, Keith Martin, and this post is one small way of putting their work in a broader context that he embodies in their state. I have no doubt that there were other people with personal experiences and connections relating to what the students had achieved, and it’s pretty much certain that neither they nor I will ever know them fully. But just as Keith said to me in our conversation that, “these kids need some recognition that their efforts have not gone unheard,” it’s important that they know that their theatrical act of civil disobedience does not stand alone, be it in North Carolina or nationally. The same is true for everyone who had a hand in making certain that Almost, Maine was heard over the cries of those who wanted it silenced.
In one of my early conversations with Conner Baker, as we discussed her options, her mantra was that, “We just want to do the play.” She and her classmates and supporters did just that, in the least confrontational way possible, but in doing so their names belong alongside those of Peggy Boring, Samantha Gellar, Keith Martin and many others in the annals of North Carolina theatre, at the very least.
I’ll leave you with one last connection between Keith Martin and Almost, Maine. The SALT Block Auditorium where the show was produced is located in an arts center which is the former Hickory High School. Keith Martin attended that very school decades ago and performed on the stage where Almost, Maine was produced last week. The role he recalled for me when asked? The title character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I suspect that even James Thurber’s famous daydreamer couldn’t have imagined the controversy surrounding Almost, Maine…or its happy ending. Maiden’s reactionary, cowardly loss was Hickory’s heroic gain.