The Topeka, KS, church and preacher known for picketing Matthew Shepard's funeral with signs that read, "God Hates Fags," is zeroing in on the Missouri Repertory Theatre staging of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in Kansas City, MO.
Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, told Playbill On-Line he plans a peaceful picket at 7:30 PM Feb. 18, the opening night of the resident premiere of Moises Kaufman's docudrama about gay playwright and wit Oscar Wilde.
The church contacted campus police at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), where Missouri Rep is the professional theatre in residence.
"Our institutional view is that anyone is free to express their views about a work that we're doing, or the institution itself," Missouri Rep's associate executive director, Danny Baker, told Playbill On-Line. "Our hope is that people will attend the play and make their own determination about the message and content."
Rev. Phelps said he has not read the script or seen a production, but "a synopsis is plenty." "What they do is make some kind of role model or hero out of Oscar Wilde, and in our view of things he was just another criminal sodomite that the world has been full of since the beginning," Rev. Phelps said.
The Off-Broadway and regional hit, Gross Indecency, is a presentational docudrama that examines the suits and countersuits -- including charges of sodomy -- that brought down Wilde in 1895. It suggests the idea of Wilde as the first gay celebrity-icon.
Rev. Phelps said he is concerned that students are being exposed to the idea that being gay is acceptable. "We don't want to leave unchallenged the notion that it's OK to be gay," said Rev. Phelps, whose Baptist Church runs a website called godhatesfags.com. The preacher has been denounced by gay rights groups as a hatemonger whose words might incite anti-gay violence.
The preacher told Playbill On-Line that his church is involved in 18,000 protests every year, and all are nonviolent. "It's supposed to be that way," Rev. Phelps said. "More often than not there are violent counter demonstrators. We are in close touch with campus police."
The murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard resparked dialogue and action about hate crimes, hate crime legislation and homophobia in the country. Rev. Phelps and his followers picketed Shepard's funeral, letting mourners and media know that Shepard was in hell. The website has a photo of Shepard with flames superimposed on his face.
Ironically, the Kansas City protest happens one day before the first preview of Moises Kaufman's latest docudrama, The Laramie Project, by the Denver Center Theatre Company. The world premiere tells of the aftermath of the murder of Shepard and its effect on the citizens of Laramie, WY, where Shepard was beaten and left for dead on a prairie fence in 1998.
Rev. Phelps expects 20-25 fellow protestors at Missouri Rep, and the group will disband after the theatregoers have gone into the play. He said that among this week's pickets, he will protest a speaking appearance by Julie Andrew at Kansas City's Kemper Arena. He said Victor/Victoria, the Broadway and film vehicle for Andrews, covers up "a monstrous crime" in "joviality and conviviality."
According to the church's website, Westboro Baptist Church is an Old School (or Primitive) Baptist Church. The church is considered a fundamentalist splinter group, and even right-wing preachers such as Rev. Jerry Falwell, who considers homosexuals sinners, has denounced the activity of Rev. Phelps.
Previews for Missouri Rep's Gross Indecency began Feb. 15. Performances continue to March 5. Paul Barnes directs.
-- By Kenneth Jones