Local Arts

1996: Judge: Let 'Angels' play: Controversial work opens to street protests

In the 1996 "Angels in America" by Charlotte Rep, the Angel (Barbi Van Schaick) holds Prior Walter (Alan Poindexter).
In the 1996 "Angels in America" by Charlotte Rep, the Angel (Barbi Van Schaick) holds Prior Walter (Alan Poindexter).

This story was originally published on March 21, 1996.

For the next 10 days the curtain will rise on "Angels in America" without risk of Charlotte authorities stopping the performance, forcing changes or arresting the actor who strips nude during a hospital scene.

A last-minute court order Wednesday secured opening night for the tense cast and crew of the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic, which played without protest in city after city until it reached Charlotte. A group of Christian conservatives tried blocking the show over scenes of nudity, profanity and simulated sex.

Even after the legal victory, some expected an outburst during the nude scene, but when Charlotte actor Alan Poindexter dropped his blue slacks and for seven seconds faced the audience naked, no one said or did a thing.

In the hours leading up to the show, Charlotte Repertory Theatre and a cadre of lawyers led by the flamboyant Bill Diehl scrambled to sue a long list of people with the power to interfere with the long-awaited performance at the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

Protesters march along North Tryon Street in front of the Performing Arts Center on March 21, 1996. A last-minute court order secured the 10-day run of the show. Observer file photo by GARY O'BRIEN

"We got this case at 12:30 and put together nothing short of a miracle," Diehl said triumphantly at the courthouse, waving a copy of the temporary restraining order Superior Court Judge Marvin Gray signed just before 5 p.m.

The order prevents interference from Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, the district attorney, the sheriff, state alcohol commissioners and others, including the uptown Performing Arts Center itself, which is Charlotte Repertory's landlord and whose threats triggered Wednesday's lawsuit.

The Performing Arts Center said it would not allow the play to go on unless the theater promised not to violate the state's indecent-exposure law - or unless it obtained a court order banning authorities from enforcing the law.

The showdown pitted two of the city's most prominent arts groups against one another. This round ended with Charlotte Rep winning on grounds that restrictions amounted to censorship and violated the theater's constitutional right to free speech.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that nudity in an artistic setting is protected by the First Amendment, Gray wrote in his order: "The play is an artistic presentation. Nudity . . . in the play appears to constitute artistic expression."

The order eased the rising tension surrounding the play's immediate future:

Would the production feel forced to "tone down" the content as Mayor Pat McCrory suggested? Would the district attorney prosecute under the state's indecent exposure laws?

Would the show go on at all?

Victory in hand, Charlotte Rep's managing director, Keith Martin, hastily assembled a news conference at sundown, and paraphrased the last line of Part 1 of the play: "The messenger has arrived. Let the great work begin."

As actors took the stage at 7:30 Wednesday night, two sets of protesters marched outside in the biting wind with homemade signs, some scribbled right there on the redbrick sidewalk.

Pro-"Angels" marchers (about 100) far outnumbered the anti (about 30) but the anti-"Angels" leader, the Rev. Joseph Chambers, said: "I don't think the number has anything to do with the strength. I have the support of the city council, most of the county commissioners. We have widespread support."

On March 21, 1996, after an opposing group of demonstrators left, the Rev. Joseph Chambers led his group in prayer on the sidewalk in front of the Performing Arts Center. Observer file photo by GARY O'BRIEN

Some protesters chanted, others didn't; their signs said it all:

"Don't Tarnish the Queen City."

"World Class? Try BACKWATER."

"Homosexuality Is Not Art."

"Move Along, It's Just a Penis."

Backstage, the cast, steeped in a week's worth of anxiety, got a chins-up fax from the play's New York author, Tony Kushner:

" . . . In times such as these I chant Martin Luther King's great statement, as a kind of protective mantra: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.' Be splendid tonight, be focused, have fun, make theater: That's our way of repudiating the bullies, the killjoys, the busybodies and blowhards."

"Angels" author Tony Kushner was guest of honor at a "Meet the Cast" champagne and dessert reception after the March 26, 1996, performance. Guests Andreas Bechtler (left) and Dianne Hoover (right) were among the 400 people who attended the event. Observer file photo

Kushner plans to be in Charlotte on Friday and Saturday for an AIDS benefit and a speech. Given the week's ruckus, he said Wednesday he wouldn't miss it. "I got to see this place with my own two eyes."

With the threat of Charlotte shutting down the play that has been hailed as the best this decade, the eyes of the city and nation watched, but only the 440 people who paid between $16 and $21 for seats inside the Booth Theater were privy to what the fuss is all about. The two-part play depicts '80s gay life in New York.

"It's only just now that I'm realizing what's been going on," said Steve Umberger, Charlotte Rep's artistic director. "This battle has got to be fought for Charlotte to get to the next artistic level."

The controversy is over a nude scene deep into Part I in which an AIDS patient slips out of his pants so a nurse can count his lesions. Facing the audience without a shred of clothing is vital to symbolize the character's vulnerability, Umberger said.

It's trash, says Chambers, whose protest of "Angels" forced this week's confrontation. Chambers launched the protest in the name of the anti-pornography group Concerned Charlotteans.

"I don't believe homosexuality is an art," said "Angels" opponent Dot Townsend. "It's a lifestyle that people choose, and it's wrong." She has children and grandchildren. "I want to try to protect them from the evils of the world. I want them to grow up in a wholesome world."

Charlotte's longtime voice of moral outrage, Chambers has led the attack on "Angels," but Wednesday's legal maneuvers were prompted by the Performing Arts Center's actions.

In a letter Wednesday to Charlotte Rep, Blumenthal Chairman James Thompson and President Judith Allen said the theater has been aware for months of the potential problems involving nudity and that the theater had "represented" to District Attorney Peter Gilchrist that it would try to produce the play in a way that would not violate the law.

Thompson and Allen wrote that at a meeting on Monday, police and the district attorney advised them the play violates North Carolina's indecent-exposure statute.

"You and your board of directors were urged to consider relative minor modifications of the scene in order to avoid violation of the statute," the letter said.

Thompson and Allen then wrote: "We urge you to provide us written assurances, satisfactory to us, that the scenes in question will be modified to avoid violation of the indecent exposure statute or to seek and obtain judicial relief enjoining enforcement of the statute."

The theater, Thompson and Allen added, had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to provide them with those assurances or get the court order.

If they couldn't, Thompson and Allen said the Performing Arts Center's executive committee had told them to notify the theater that it would be violating its lease agreement, that the agreement would be terminated and no performances permitted.

At 4:48 p.m., Diehl sued.

Keith Martin (left) of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre, and attorney Bill Diehl hold a news conference in March 1996 after the ruling on "Angels in America" was announced. Observer file photo by L. MUELLER

"It's a great day to be a lawyer," said Diehl, of the law firm James McElroy & Diehl and well-known as the colorful bulldog of Charlotte's legal community.

Hours later, inside the nearly packed theater, the 3-1/2-hour performance unfolded without a titter.

The controversial scene happened around 10:30 p.m., early in the third act, when AIDS patient Prior Walter, played by Poindexter, is in the hospital for a checkup. A low buzz moved through the audience. The actor took off his black turtleneck so the nurse could check for lesions.

"Pants," the nurse said.

Poindexter unbuckled his belt and pulled down his slacks.

He was naked for seven seconds.

The nurse finished checking. Poindexter pulled his pants back up. The scene went on. No one left. No one cheered either.

In the audience sat some of those who had argued against this scene. Allen and Thompson, who tried to change the play or shut it down, sat together. They declined comment.

Louis Bracken of Charlotte, in Wednesday's audience, had this to say:

"I think this has all been a good thing. We've been talking about this a lot in our family. Even though some people oppose it, I think we've been able to understand everybody's position a little better. I'm just glad they let the play go on."

The restraining order expires in 10 days. But a week from today, Charlotte Repertory will go before Gray to fight for a preliminary injunction, which would protect the play until the lawsuit goes to trial. Part 2 of the play opens next month.

Staff writers TED MELLNIK and TOMMY TOMLINSON contributed to this article.