Post and Courier
September 22, 2014

Controversy over 'Fun Home' prompts creators to bring show to Charleston

Posted: 04/16/2014 11:09 a.m.
Updated: 04/16/2014 06:18 p.m.


By Adam Parker

The author of the critically-acclaimed illustrated memoir "Fun Home" was so horrified by the actions of South Carolina lawmakers and College of Charleston officials that she quickly joined an effort to bring the off-Broadway show based on her book to campus, according to local organizers.

Alison Bechdel and the cast of the New York City show are volunteering to present a concert version of the musical in Charleston. Two performances will be offered, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday, at Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St.

College of Charleston spokesman Mike Roberston said tickets went on sale Tuesday, and about 750 of them were sold in the first 24 hours they were available.

The book "Fun Home" was the selected title for the College Reads! program and made available to all incoming freshman in the fall of 2013. It recounts Bechdel's upbringing and explores themes of sexual identity.

In the book, which Bechdel has written and drawn in comic-strip form, she describes her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and owner of a funeral home; the trial he faced over his dealings with young boys; his possible suicide; and her own coming out as a lesbian.

In February, some lawmakers took issue with the book, and the S.C. House budget-writing committee moved to withdraw $52,000 of school funding, the cost of the summer reading program.

The censorship controversy flared, prompting acrimony on both sides and concern from supporters of academic freedom.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, an outspoken opponent of "Fun Home" being selected for the freshman reading program, said that he has heard about the play and believes it is a direct response to the House's decision to cut funds due to the college's controversial summer reading choice.

That "protest" move is not wise, Grooms said, and he plans to bring it up as the Senate debates this year's budget.

"If lessons weren't learned over there, the Senate may speak a little bit louder than the House. There would be a number of members in the Senate that would have a great interest in fixing the deficiencies at the College of Charleston," Grooms said.

He declined to say specifically what action or cuts he had planned.

Several members of the College of Charleston's Board of Trustees expressed concerns about the book to a legislative panel that screens candidates for seats on public college and university boards. But then last month, the board unanimously passed a resolution supporting academic freedom.

On April 14, it was announced that the musical "Fun Home" had been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It also was nominated for nine Lucille Lortel Awards. The production premiered at New York's Public Theater in September 2013, and its run was extended multiple times because of demand. The production closed in January 2014 and is now Broadway bound.

The 2006 memoir was adapted by Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music. The show will be presented in concert format and include the original cast: Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris as Bechdel's father, Bruce; three-time Tony Award-nominee Judy Kuhn as Bechdel's mother, Helen; Griffin Birney as John Bechdel; Roberta Colindrez playing Joan; Noah Hinsdale as Christian Bechdel; Sydney Lucas as Small Alison; Beth Malone playing Alison; Joel Perez portraying Roy; and Emily Skeggs as Medium Alison.

The event is "an incredible academic opportunity for our students and the chance for our community to see off-Broadway stars sing inventive and complex works from a popular musical fresh from the New York stage," said Todd McNerney, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance, in a statement.

Kron, Tesori, Bechdel and musical director Chris Fenwick will be in attendance, giving students "the added bonus of interaction with major theatrical and writing professionals," he said. Two students will serve as production assistants and theater and dance majors can observe the rehearsal.

Lynne Ford, associate provost for curriculum and a member of the College Reads! committee, said the show is a natural follow-up to the campus visit paid by Bechdel in October. That visit was "incredibly productive," she said, "there was no controversy at all."

But when Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, and others began to protest use of the book, the college community decided to respond.

"We started thinking about what else we could do here," Ford said. "The theater department reached out to see if we could get rights to do the show in fall." But it's on the way to Broadway, so that was impossible.

Instead, Bechdel and those involved in the production offered to bring it to Charleston.

"It's their own way of making a statement," Ford said. "I just can't imagine a greater outcome."

But Ford hastened to add that this should not be interpreted as retribution for legislative meddling. Instead, this provides an important educational opportunity for students who can view an acclaimed musical, consider its important themes and interact with its cast and crew, she said.

Still, "it's true (that) without the Legislature's punishment we wouldn't have this incredible opportunity for students and the college," she said.

Robertson said no state funds are being used for the performances.

The production is partially funded by the Sam and Regina Greene Fund at the Coastal Community Foundation.

"The Sam and Regina Greene Fund at the Community Foundation was set up by my parents, Holocaust survivors, to fund educational and other activities to teach about the Holocaust and to prevent similar events from happening," wrote Harlan Greene in an email. "The sort of hate and discrimination voiced by many in this state about gay books and the gay 'lifestyle' mirrors the same type of rhetoric that was voiced in those events that led to the events now known as the Holocaust, where gays were among those singled out for destruction."

All four children of Sam and Regina Greene voted to contribute $7,500 to the effort, Greene said.

The total bill will run about $18,000, according to McNerney. The cast and crew will get travel and accommodations paid for, along with a modest per diem, he said. Additional funding is coming from more than a dozen College of Charleston Foundation accounts,

"All that support allowed us the capability to keep the ticket price down," McNerney said.

General admission tickets are $15; senior citizens, College of Charleston students and employees pay $10. Tickets may be purchased online at theatre.cofc.edu or at the door up to 30 minutes prior to the start of the show.

Jeremy Borden and Diane Knich contributed to this report.