Angels in America Opens at Charlotte Repertory Theatre

7:35 p.m., March 20, 1996

Angels in America, a seven-hour, two-part, Tony-award-winning play by Tony Kushner, became the subject of intense controversy because of its homosexual themes and full frontal, male nudity. As a direct result of its performance by Charlotte Repertory Theatre, the county commission voted five to four to suspend all funding to the Arts and Science Council. A year later, citizens reacted by voting four of the infamous Gang of Five out of office. Keith Martin, who ran Charlotte Rep, remembers opening night:

The curtain speech was similar to hundreds that I had given from in front of the stage at the Booth Playhouse: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Charlotte Repertory Theatre…" It was the addition of the words, "and the first performance of Angels In America" that made this particular greeting unique. The capacity crowd of 434 spontaneously leapt to their feet and responded with genuine and heartfelt applause. This was the first standing ovation that ever took place prior to a performance.

At approximately the same time just a hundred yards from the theater, another greeting was taking place. The police had divided the demonstrators (numbered at sixty-five by The New York Times and 130 by The Charlotte Observer) into two groups. Protestors paced back and forth along East Trade Street between Tryon and College, while supporters were confined to the block between Trade and Fifth. The two perpetual circles of motion intersected on The Square directly beneath the bare-breasted statue entitled The Future.

That's where the outspoken Reverend Joseph Chambers came face to face with a drag queen who went by Marlo Montgomery. After a polite nod of the head, Chambers realized that this stylishly attired woman in a full length fur coat was actually a man. The Reverend turned on his heels, smiling, and headed in the opposite direction. Observer photographer Gary O'Brien captured the moment on film and it appeared in the paper the next morning.

What did these two events have in common?

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States insures freedom of speech for everyone in this country. Not only did this freedom allow Charlotte Rep to produce such a powerful work as Angels In America, it also gave those citizens with differing views the right to freely express their opinions about the play. This Constitutional privilege, exercised in varying ways right here in Charlotte, made 7:35 pm on Wednesday, March 20, 1996 memorable for me.

Keith Martin, Producer and Managing Director of Charlotte Rep from 1990-2001, is a Visiting Professor in Theatre at Davidson College and the registered lobbyist/legislative strategist for ARTS North Carolina.

Categories: Archive Department, News – Web Exclusives