"Fun Home" author Alison Bechdel said she owes a debt to the generations of gay people who came before her, including her closeted, gay father who killed himself.
And she was proud to be part of bringing to Charleston the off-Broadway show based on her book, despite threats from South Carolina lawmakers that they could continue to slash the College of Charleston's budget.
Bechdel and the original cast of the New York show volunteered to present two performances in concert format at the 750-seat Memminger Auditorium Monday. The 7 p.m. show sold out and most seats for the 9 p.m. show also were filled.
Local organizers of the event said the cast was horrified by legislators' reaction to "Fun Home" being selected as a freshman summer reading assignment.
"This is about stories about real people's lives," Bechdel said. "It's not pornography. The play is an amazing work of art."
Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, said that in addition to students, the performances were important to Charleston residents, including members of its gay community. The General Assembly "is still trying to bully those with certain views," he said.
The graphic novel "Fun Home" was the selected title for the College Reads! program and made available to all incoming freshman in the fall of 2013.
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 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.
Last week, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said the college was unwise to host the play, and threatened more budget cuts.
"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.
Bechdel said she thinks Grooms is "severely out of touch."
Sophomore Kayla Robbins, a theater major, said she had the rare opportunity to observe a "Fun Home" rehearsal. "We don't get opportunities like this down here very often," she said.
"The reason they are here is because of how ridiculous the situation is," she said. "But it's beautiful."
Redman-Gress said threatening budget cuts in an attempt to control academic content at the College of Charleston isn't a new tactic for lawmakers.
In 2003, the late Rep. John Graham Altman of Charleston used that method to quash a proposal to create a lesbian and gay studies minor, he said.
And, he said, he's not surprised that opposition to "Fun Home" by some members of the General Assembly prompted the performances. "Truth will always speak out. It will force its way out sometimes."
Todd McNerney, chairman of the college's Department of Theatre and Dance, said bringing "Fun Home" to town was a boon for the college.
On April 14, it was announced that the musical 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 off-Broadway bound.
McNerney said the performances were not meant to be an insult or a challenge to lawmakers. They were meant to expose students to accomplished artists. "I hope they won't punish us for presenting a piece of artistic work."
And, he added, "not a cent of state money was used to support this."
Tom Casserly, a member of the performance's production team, said "it was hard to pass on an opportunity to show our work to students when they are really interested in it. I know there are a lot of passionate kids here."
When he was in college, Casserly said, "I would have killed to see this."
Earlier in the day Monday, dozens of College of Charleston students rallied on the Cougar Mall in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students, a move prompted by the "Fun Home" performances.
Sophomore Kade Pope, who is from Aiken, said she enjoyed reading "Fun Home" more than Jonathan Safran Foer's book "Eating Animals," which addressed topics such as factory farming and commercial fisheries and was the College Reads! selection when she was a freshman. "And don't worry," Pope told the crowd, "'Eating Animals' didn't turn me into a vegetarian."
Bechdel's 2006 memoir was adapted by Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music. The show included 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 Christian Bechdel; Roberta Colindrez playing Joan; Noah Hinsdale as John Bechdel; Sydney Lucas as Small Alison; Beth Malone playing Alison; Joel Perez portraying Roy; and Emily Skeggs as Medium Alison.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
Alison Bechdel (right), whose illustrated memoir “Fun Home” was part of the College of Charleston’s summer reading program for incoming freshmen, listens — along with the cast — to instructions during a rehearsal at Memminger Auditorium for Monday’s show.×
Southerners on New Ground field organizer Jenna Lyles (left) cheers along with alumni Jillian Brandal and CofC employee Melinda Scharstein during a rally to support gay rights Monday on the Cougar Mall.×
Sydney Lucas, who played a young Alison Bechdel in the theatrical production of “Fun Home,” rehearses Monday afternoon at Memminger Auditorium.×