A Charlotte, N.C. high school junior who won a playwriting contest is staging the play with the help of local activists after a theater refused to produce it because the two main characters are lesbians.
As one of five winners of the Charlotte Young Playwright's Festival, 17-year-old Samantha Gellar won a $100 cash prize and the chance to have her play produced at The Children's Theater. But the theater said that they could not stage Gellar's work because of a Board of Education rule saying plays with "homosexual content" could not be shown.
With help from Time Out Youth, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Great Aunt Stella Center and her parents, Gellar staged the first professional reading of "Life Versus the Paperback Romance" in Charlotte on March 7.
Gellar said that Scott Miller, artistic director of the Children's Theater, had offered to present the play if she changed the characters to a heterosexual couple, but she refused. "At first I didn't think I cared whether the play got produced," she said. "But after I won, I realized I did care."
Tonda Taylor, founder and director of Time Out Youth, said Miller had told a local official that he regretted the censorship but he was following "the will of the community."
"I grew up in Charlotte when it was the 'will of the community' to keep black children out of my school," she said. "And I have seen the will of the community' lead young lesbian and gay youth to drop out of school and worse, rather than face harassment from other students and even from their teachers."
While Gellar's work is the first winning play to be excluded at the Children's Theater, several plays with gay and lesbian content have been censored. The City of Charlotte gained notoriety two years ago when county officials yanked funding for the arts because of objections to gay themes and nudity in a local production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-Prize winning play "Angels in America" at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre.
"We felt the most important issue here was to make sure that Samantha's voice was heard," said Deborah Ross, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "The best answer to suppression of speech is more speech. So it made sense for the ACLU to join the effort to get the play produced." The ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project also contributed funds to the production.
Ross said that the ACLU had considered a legal challenge on Gellar's behalf but that courts were bound by a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision saying that a North Carolina high school teacher's selection of a play could be censored by school officials. The play in that case, by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lee Blessing, was about a dysfunctional family that included a lesbian daughter and a promiscuous sibling. The name of the play was "Independence."