“I Know You”: Fun Home in Charleston and Theater as Activism
One week ago today, the cast of the recent Pulitzer Prize finalist Fun Home, along with its writers, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, and Alison Bechdel, author of the musical’s graphic novel source material, traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to present a concert version of the show. Recently, the College of Charleston lost a significant portion of its government funds after assigning Bechdel’s Fun Home as optional summer reading. And though the CofC theatre department describes the staged reading as primarily an educational opportunity, the press saw the correlation between the controversy and the presentation and branded it otherwise: MSNBC, for example, used the headline “College of Charleston protests with gay-themed play ‘Fun Home.’”
“Protests.” It’s right there in the headline. Many news sources note that students held a rally, a literal protest, around the time of the performance as well – but the performance itself was seen as a form of protest too. Theater and activism have been entangled before, but this feels like a different trend, one that marks a shift in the way musical theater can engage with its audiences. In the past, I’ve written about different ways theater can involve the community; now, I want to think about how theater can change the community. Specifically, the question I want to explore is: what transforms apolitical theater into activist theater?
Because that’s how I’d describe Fun Home: apolitical. For the uninitiated, both the graphic novel and the musical tell the story of Bechdel’s childhood, her coming out as a lesbian during college, and the subsequent death of her father, a closeted gay man in a straight marriage. The show is more interested in telling an intensely personal story in a relatable way than in making a political statement about gay rights. Yet there it was in Charleston, in proximity to a homophobic limitation of free speech.
How is it possible that a musical so interested in storytelling can potentially also galvanize a whole city behind a political issue? How can theater stage a protest just by staging itself? For me, what it comes down to is representation in context.
Let’s start with the first part of that. On the most basic level, Fun Home grants the three incarnations of Alison Bechdel’s character a place in the predominantly heterosexual canon of musical theater. But representation is more than just visibility. After the controversy in Charleston began, Bechdel was asked to return to South Carolina to give a talk on the issue. She turned down the invitation, calling the entire situation “upsetting and annoying.” Yet Bechdel traveled with the show’s cast and creators to Charleston last week, demonstrating that there’s a difference between giving a talk and performing a musical. When you go to a talk, the speaker is front and center; you’re reminded of the individuality of her perspective. In contrast, theater writers give their perspectives to their characters, letting you feel the story rather than just understand it. In that sense, theater has the uniquely tangible power to represent an experience. But that representation depends on the context in which it’s received. Fun Home off-Broadway is very different from Fun Home in a red state because of how open its audience is expected to be to the experiences it represents. And Charleston shows us that context can be even more specific than predicted politics.
Another piece of theatre that sustains this trend is 8 the Play. Written by Dustin Lance Black, the play’s text is based on the actual Proposition 8 trial in California. As such, it differs from Fun Home in that it can hardly be called apolitical, but it still promotes activism through story (and if you have any questions about legal procedurals as stories, take them up with Dick Wolf). After two star-studded performances on Broadway and in LA, the former of which was livestreamed, the play went on to have productions in states “where marriage battles loom[ed].” Context strikes again. Whereas representing the Prop 8 story on a national stage can motivate people to support gay marriage in the abstract, performing it in battleground states gives audiences an avenue to turn that support into something concrete.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to book musicals; cabarets and concerts can become activist in just the same way. Miscast, MCC’s annual gala, features a lineup of singers unified in that the performer’s gender and the character’s gender aren’t the same. MCC describes the event as one where “Broadway’s hottest stars perform songs from roles in which they would NEVER be cast. And the results are thrilling!” Having attended one a few years back, I can tell you that the results are indeed thrilling. Another annual event, Broadway Backwards, has the same setup. But because Broadway Backwards is a benefit for BC/EFA, the same gender-swap idea takes on a new, activist meaning: at Broadway Backwards, BC/EFA writes, “gays and lesbians see their stories told through the great songs of musical theatre, sung by their favorite Broadway performers.” Remember: the two events have the exact same structure. But where one benefits a theatre company, one benefits an organization whose mission is, in part, about social action. The two events take place in the same city, but institutional context makes only one activist: where one explicitly promises entertainment, the other explicitly promises representation.
In one of Fun Home’s most widely praised songs, “Ring of Keys,” 8-year-old Alison sees a butch woman enter a diner and is instantly entranced. Alison marvels at the woman’s appearance and overall persona, but what gives this song its power for me is the connection she feels with her: “I think we’re alike in a certain way,” Alison sings. And, later: “I know you.” For Alison, seeing herself represented in the woman who “seem[s] okay with being strong” – and specifically in the context of an everyday luncheonette – is an extraordinarily powerful experience. It works just the same for activist theater audiences. Whether you’re seeing your own experience represented or experientially feeling someone else’s story, a production’s context can affect a show’s meaning. To producers, to directors, to theatre-makers, I invite you to consider: What’s your context? What experience needs to be represented? What story you can use to motivate people in your community to action?
The post “I Know You”: Fun Home in Charleston and Theater as Activism appeared first on The NewMusicalTheatre.com Green Room.