A young man was dead, and suddenly nothing made sense.
In the weeks leading up to Mark Carson's murder in Greenwich Village, my new play, GOD HATES THIS SHOW: Shirley Phelps-Roper in Concert, Live From Hell, was finally gaining steam. The piece imagines Shirley Phelps-Roper of Westboro Baptist Church infamy as having been banished to Hell and forced for all eternity to sing a cabaret act for an "evil" gay audience. Having been extended the opportunity to present the show in New York City this October at HERE Arts Center, I had been happily consumed and distracted by the never-ending amount of work that seemed to be necessary to get this dark parody off the ground. I was doing something worthwhile, I thought. I was giving people a way to laugh at hate and hopefully minimize its effect through collectively and cathartically reducing something monstrous like the Westboro Baptist Church into nothing more than an idiotic inconvenience.
And then there was that single gunshot. As news reports of Mark Carson's slaying in Greenwich Village came flooding in, everything I had been working on became momentarily irrelevant.
"I've walked down that street. I've been to that bar."
As we all read the headlines, each of us became Mark Carson for one imagined moment. Elliot Morales taunted us in our mind's eye. He raised a revolver to each of our heads. We felt the cold metal against our cheeks. And when we were finished imagining ourselves being callously and pointlessly removed from the lives of our loved ones, we imagined our loved ones experiencing the same end simply because they might be gay.
"That could be Michael."
"That could be Anne."
"That could be my love. That could be Will."
Mark was killed in a neighborhood that I gravitated to as a young gay artist visiting New York City for the first time in 2002. Not once did I fear for my safety. We can't be killed in Greenwich Village. We only get killed in Laramie. We need to be careful in certain parts of Phoenix, sure. Maybe Arkansas gets a little hairy. Or Topeka.
As the gravity of the situation sank in, I spent a good deal of time staring at my computer screen, doing absolutely nothing to my script. I should be at a protest. I should be pushing for stricter gun control legislation. I should be hugging my friends. They are safe. Instead, I was writing a play that features backup singers dressed like demons.
One particular demon in my show is being played by a personal friend, an amazing performer, and an associate artist of my company, Progressive Theatre Workshop. This demon also has a very special guy in his life whom I think very highly of. It wasn't until a few days after the murder that we realized just how deeply Elliot Morales had penetrated our own personal and artistic lives.
Police say that Morales' Friday night included urinating in front of a bar in the neighborhood before going inside and confronting the bartender with anti-gay slurs. He then allegedly pulled up his sweatshirt to show off a revolver he was carrying in a shoulder holster and threatened to kill the bartender if he called police.
That wasn't just a bartender. That was our bartender. That was Demon Number 1's special guy. That's Demon Number 1's everything. The guy who makes him so happy. The guy we love for making him so happy. But he's OK. Thank God he's OK.
My stunned disbelief quickly shifted to determined anger. Someone had killed someone who meant a great deal to others. He had also threatened the life of someone who means a great deal to me and other friends of mine. How could I be funny at a time like this? What was the point of magnifying and calling into question the absurd and ridiculous vitriol that spills from the mouths of Westboro members? Why was this play important? And if I continued forward with it, how would I be contributing, ultimately?
There are a lot of things I don't know how to do. I don't really know how to rally or organize a community into action. I don't know how to turn my anger at the state of gay rights into measurable progress. I don't know how to make things better or how to keep people I love safe in a crazy world. But there are things that I do know how to do very well. I know how to make people laugh. I know how to be theatrical. And I know how to say "f*ck you!" very loudly.
So I kept making my play, because it's the only real way I know how to contribute to a conversation that oftentimes seems impossibly daunting. This is what I do. I make theater, I comment, and I ask people to think and respond.
And with the help of an amazing team, I asked others who might be very passionate about LGBTQ rights to join me. I have been blown away by the response. Comedian and activist Margaret Cho has graciously joined us and contributed items for our upcoming fundraising campaign. Legendary lesbian pulp novelist Anne Bannon has joined us. Planting Peace Equality House has jumped onboard and will receive a portion of proceeds. Artisans and activists of all kinds have recognized this as a moment to collectively, cathartically, and jokingly tell hate mongers like the Westboro Baptist Church and Shirley Phelps-Roper to go to hell.
Westboro's constant and perpetual demonstration of hate is dangerous to the state of things. Through their voice, they give people who are already fearful of gays an example to live by. They reinforce a distorted and dehumanizing opinion that we LGBTQ citizens of the world are lesser than they. So this is what I will do. I will scream back at Westboro and anyone else who contributes to the volatile state of hatred that, in its worst instances, spawns dangerous apparitions of its horrifying potential: Elliot Morales.
While I can't rid the world of hatred or murderers or Westboro or Shirley, I can, at the very least, send them to Hell for 75 minutes so that you and I can laugh as they dance in the fire. We need to laugh, especially at times like these. And after the show is over, let's stand on the sidewalk together outside HERE and have a conversation about what else we can do to make a difference -- because I want to learn.
GOD HATES THIS SHOW: Shirley Phelps-Roper in Concert, Live From Hell will be presented in October 2013 at HERE Arts Center in New York City as part of SubletSeries@HERE, HERE's curated rental program, which provides artists with subsidized space and equipment, as well as technical support.
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