Last Wednesday night, my mom and I went to see The Color Purple on Broadway. I was stoked. I'd heard only glowing reviews of this minimalist production, and, from what I saw of the show, nothing disappointed.
Right before the end of the first act, there's a moment when Shug Avery, played by Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson, is comforting the protagonist Celie, played by a sickly talented acting-singing alien who came out of nowhere named Cynthia Erivo.
At this point in the story, the character of Celie has had it rough, to put it mildly. By the age of fourteen, she has given birth to two of her father's children. Each baby is mysteriously gotten rid of by Celie's father, and then her father essentially sells her into marriage with a man who treats her like a dog. Through all of this, Celie's life is graced by a handful of other women who all seem to have it a bit better than she does. They're given an education. They have the strength to fight back against their despicable husbands. They have a modicum of agency. But not Celie.
So, at the end of Act One, when Shug Avery, a kind of early-20th-century feminist rock star, leans in and kisses Celie on the lips--showing her more love and validation in one tender kiss than she's ever known in her cursed life--it's meant to be beautiful.
However, when JHud kissed Cynthia Erivo in the performance that I saw, some woman sitting in the audience yelled, "Eew no, don't do that! Ugh!"
You'd think that an indignant hush might have subsequently fallen on the crowd, but no. Within approximately point four seconds, a large chunk of the audience started laughing, and loudly. I'm sure most of them were laughing out of shock, not because they were also grossed out by a gay kiss, but these chortles, and the homophobic heckle that inspired them, ruined my whole night. I turned to my mom and said, "I want to leave at intermission," and that's exactly what we did.
(Fun fact: a friend of mine also happened to be at this performance of The Color Purple, and he told me that the same thing happened when he saw La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway a few years ago. You heard that right: La Cage Aux Folles! George and Albin--the devoted gay male couple at the center of La Cage--kiss only once in that show, right before the end, and, when they did, a man in the audience let out a verbal puke sound: "Awwugh!")
Before my mom and I left the theatre, I turned to the two ladies sitting next to me--who had both laughed--and I blurted, "I have to ask you something: Why did you laugh when that woman said that before?"
They both replied, "I just wasn't expecting that to happen! I was uncomfortable!"
And I explained, "Yeah, well, that whole thing really hurt me. I'm a proud, openly gay man, and this is my mom. We're both going to leave the show now, because I don't want to sit here anymore. Now I'm the one who feels uncomfortable."
They profusely apologized, looking humiliated, so I said, "It's okay. You weren't really the one in the wrong, but that wasn't anything to laugh at. It was so hurtful to me."
After leaving, I wondered if we should have stayed. I was sad to miss the second act, which features a killer eleven o'clock number. Also, I'd never seen the show before, or seen the movie or read the book, so I didn't know how the story ended, and I still don't!
I wondered why my gut instinct was to flee. I've chewed on this a lot since leaving that theatre, and I've concluded that, had I stayed, I would've felt like I was accepting a kind of bullying. I would've felt the way I used to feel in high school when dumb boys would disdainfully refer to people and things as "gay," and my peers would laugh, and I'd have to take it on the chin.
I wondered why I felt the need to talk to the ladies sitting next to me. When I heard the culprit scream her stupid, ugly words, I was aggravated that I wasn't sitting closer to her. I wanted to know exactly which audience member she was. I wanted to go up to her at intermission and engage her in a dialogue. I wanted to tell her how hurtful her actions had been to me and, I'm sure, a lot of other people there. I wanted to ask her why she felt the way she did. Why did a kiss between two women fill her with revulsion? Why did she feel the need to express that feeling out loud? Did she realize that doing so would make someone like me feel like she was spitting in my face? Why did that particular moment in the story inspire a disgusted outburst, and not, say, the moment when it was revealed that Celie's father had twice impregnated her? Or the moment when Celie's husband attacked Celie's sister? Or when Celie's husband threatened to kill her should she try to read her own mail? Why didn't moments like those make her exclaim, "Eew no, don't do that! Ugh!"
But I didn't know who in the audience had slung the verbal arrow. I couldn't ask her those questions. So I did the only thing I could possibly do: I talked to the ladies next to me. I needed a teaching moment, and I made myself one.
When I reflect on this incident, I can't help but time travel. I become a young gay person, in a Broadway theater with my mom, shouts and giggles flying at me like darts, burning with the thought, "I am worthless." A tiny point-and-laugh moment like this will fester in the mind of a young person, sowing the seeds of their shame and leading us to a staggeringly high rate of gay teen suicide--and an even higher rate of transgender teen suicide. Things have consequences. And I hope that, after hearing how that incident had affected me, should those kind ladies find themselves in a similar position again, they won't laugh.