In my hometown, Springfield, Ore., a controversy has been raging about gay rights. A conservative statewide group, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, collected enough signatures on a petition to put a measure on last May’s ballot prohibiting city agencies from “promoting, encouraging or facilitating homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism.”
The measure passed, and now Springfield is the only city in the state, perhaps in the country, that places such limitations on the civil rights of gays. Unfortunately it may be joined soon by other cities and entire states. Following its success in Springfield, the OCA has also placed a statewide measure on the November ballot. Measure Nine would require state schools to teach that homosexuality is “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.”
In the state of Colorado a similar group, Colorado for Family Values, collected nearly twice as many signatures as needed to put an anti-gay measure on the ballot there in November and groups are organizing in numerous other states.
Last fall, when the OCA was collecting signatures, as well as trying to disband the Springfield Human Rights Commission because of its support of gay rights, I decided to write a play about the issue. I called it Springfield, USA because there are Springfields in at least 18 different states, and the events of this play could take place in any of them.
Springfield, USA is written in the style of Our Town, but set in 1992. It deals with the issues facing us today. The plot of the piece, which had a rousing local production in an old downtown movie theatre just before the May election, is quite simple.
The narrator is the female mayor of the town, played in our production by a former Springfield mayor. As in Our Town, two families are featured: the Carvers and the Turnquists.
Darrell and Kathy Carver, the parents of two teenage sons, are ultra-conservative fundamentalists. Darrell is a member of the city council attempting to disband the city’s human rights commission because it supports gay rights. Next door are the liberal Turnquists: Marianne, a divorced mother who works for the railroad, and Jennifer, her teenage daughter.
Ultimately, the Carvers’ younger son Caspar is driven to suicide by his parents’ refusal to accept his homosexuality. He goes to a kind of gay heaven, where he meets a number of amusing celebrities: Aristotle, John Milton, Willa Cather and Hans Christian Andersen. Allowed to return to earth for a visit, Caspar sees his parents and friends give testimony at a city council meeting held to decide the fate of the human rights commission and realizes he should have stayed and fought.
Our local production was hugely successful, with audiences laughing, cheering and applauding throughout. It generated more media coverage than most plays produced locally for as long as I can remember. In only three performances, we reached an audience of over 800 (very large for this market).
With a nationwide surge in hate crimes, I felt I had to write this play, even if Robert Brustein would call it “theatre of guilt.” I knew I’d never change the minds of any hardcore homophobes, just as they’d never change mine with quotes from Leviticus, but I hoped to sway the fence-sitters.
I may have swayed a few. I learned, however, that the majority of our audience members came from Eugene, the university town across the river, or from even farther away. They couldn’t vote in Springfield, but the fact that they came to a play here was unusual in itself, something akin to New Yorkers going to see a play in Newark. A barrier of sorts had been broken.
One fairly conservative city council member came to the play, after being assured he wasn’t a character in it. He and his wife sat at the rear of the auditorium and looked uncomfortable, but they stayed until the end. Another council member (an OCA supporter) accused the play – which he hadn’t seen – of “trashing the conservative family.” I wasn’t surprised. I had expected opposition, right from the moment our liberal mayor urged a local production before the May election.
For some months there had been political vandalism in the community, coming from both sides. On the evening of our second performance, someone smashed the windows of two cars parked outside the theatre. The next night the police put on an extra patrol. There were no problems that night, but a few days later a dozen broken eggs decorated the doors of the theatre.
Our towns and small cities were probably never as innocent as the town portrayed in Thornton Wilder’s classic. When he wrote Our Town in 1938, the world was on the verge of war. It must have been comforting to look back to a seemingly simple age – the turn of the century – a mere 40 years earlier.
If Wilder were to write Our Town today and set it in 1950, however, he wouldn’t be able to portray that year as an innocent time, sandwiched as it was between World War II and the Korean War. It’s no longer possible to look back to innocence. I had to face facts. I had to set my play in 1992, when even our smallest communities are splitting into deeply opposed factions. Springfield, Oregon can’t be very different from Springfield, Ohio, Springfield, Colorado or even Springfield, Florida.