“She’s Gay?” The words penetrated my concentration like a linebacker through an offensive line hell-bent on sacking the quarterback on a Sunday afternoon. There I was, enjoying a production of Oprah Winfrey’s The Color Purple musical at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, in downtown West Palm Beach, FL, when a fellow theatergoer sitting amongst us in the loge couldn’t help himself but blurt out his thoughts for all to hear. Obviously, he was taken aback by the scene he had just witnessed in which Celie and Shug Avery shared affection. Obviously, he hadn’t read the book written by Alice Walker. Perhaps he had seen the movie? What followed his short two word utterance was abhorrent.
Apparently, he and several other people thought what he had just said was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. His unfortunately timed question was met with uproarious laughter that ushered in what would turn out to be three to five minutes of wholly unacceptable behavior for the theater. The laughing splintered off into annoying fits of giggles, chuckles, snickers and shrieks. What must have been the more mature persons in their group then resorted to “shooshes” in order to extinguish the fire of hee-hawing rapidly spreading from their row into the next. Regrettably, the noise was so disturbing that the dialogue of the actors was completely drowned out for us to hear.
Now if this were to happen at a movie theater, as it did when I went to see Eddie Murphy’s version of The Nutty Professor back in 1996, I would be more forgiving. Why? Because I paid $10 for a movie ticket and, yes, Eddie Murphy is the funniest comedic genius to appear since Richard Pryor. He’s supposed to make us laugh and fall out of our chairs and miss parts of the dialogue because of his humor; and he did. But when I pay $62.00 to go to the theater every once or twice a year (because that’s as often as I can afford to go), dammit, I expect quiet from the opening scene until just before the curtain call. Sure, occasional clapping and appropriate laughter is expected to show the cast your appreciation and support, but not to the extent where a whole portion of the drama is lost upon the audience.
But I fear the brunt of this rude awakening I experienced that night was not the face of immaturity, or a lack of theater decorum. I’m afraid homophobia, once again, reared its ugly face in our divided society. It could be that this young man, cursed with impetuous speech, was just so enthralled with the musical that he simply forgot he was in a theater surrounded by people hanging on every word spoken and lyric sung by the awesome cast. Yet, the emphasis he put on the word “gay” was so accented in a manner that overwhelmingly hinted at his disapproval of what he had just seen. And, really, the scene was more about the importance of being loved, accepting love, and feeling loved than anything else. That Celie’s love was given to her by Shug Avery, another woman, shouldn’t matter because here was a woman who was raped, beaten, and abused for the better part of her life. Her children were taken from her and the only other person who ever loved her, Nettie her sister, was also forced out of her life. So when Shug and Celie embrace each other, kiss one another, and experience the ultimate intimacy that lovers share, her wounds are healed.
I am not naive to the point to think that a drama of this level of excellence and literary sophistication as The Color Purple is, will be objectively entertained by all who encounter it; especially those who are more conservative in their thinking. Such open and honest expressions of sexuality are not everyone’s cup of tea. But on behalf of civilized lovers of art and theater around the globe, please keep your antiquated, pre 21st century, divisive, stereotypical, close-minded, rude comments to yourself the next time you are in the theater…at least until the show is over. Then by all means, feel free to be as ignorant as you so desire; to your little heart’s content, in utilizing your right of free speech. Because, of course, this is America!