ANITA BRYANT’S PLAYBOY INTERVIEW Theater Review
Co-creators Robert Whirry and John Copeland’s Anita Bryant’s Playboy Interview is simply a gem of L.A.’s intimate theater scene. Presented in the aptly named Cavern Club Celebrity Theater (located beneath the Casito del Campo Mexican restaurant), Interview is a docu-play that dramatizes Ken Kelley’s (Stephen Simon) 1978 Q&A for Hugh Hefner’s magazine with the eponymous Bryant. A former Miss Oklahoma and second runner-up in 1959’s Miss America beauty pageant, Bryant went on to become a pop singer with four Top 40 hits, notably “Paper Roses.” By 1969 the chirpy, syrupy, wholesome-appearing Bryant became the Florida Citrus Commission’s pitchwoman, singing "Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree" in nationally TV ads. Come, indeed…
What plunged Bryant into the annals of notoriety is that she parlayed her celebrity status into a truly loathsome conservative crusade. This was during a freewheeling era when the American Left had scored significant victories, from ending the draft and Vietnam War to enacting the Voting Rights Act and other Civil Rights legislation. Tricky Dick had been ousted from the Oval Office and Jimmy Carter, with his purported emphasis on human rights, was elected president. On the cultural front, the sexual revolution had made great strides forward in a puritanical nation which had been founded in part by, literally, Puritans, as this play’s prologue reminds us.
Enter stage right, Anita Bryant, who assailed America’s new tolerance by waging war against a 1977 Dade County, Florida ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gays.
Enter stage right, Anita Bryant, who assailed America’s new tolerance by waging war against a 1977 Dade County, Florida ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gays. Bryant contended that the anti-bias law enabled homosexuals “to teach children the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life.” The celebrity/singer/beauty contestant/advertising shill added, “I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before,” and she became the leader of a group called “Save Our Children.”
Of course, pigs pursuing underhanded agendas always use high-minded language to, as George Orwell pithily put it, “defend the indefensible,” such as protecting religious liberty or the kiddies as a rationalization for perpetrating intolerance. Bryant’s horde of religious zealots succeeded in overturning Miami’s pro-gay rights law and, in doing so, helped set the stage for and galvanized the emergence of the so-called Christian Right and Moral Majority in the late 1970s. The despicable trail blazed by Bryant and her fellow deplorables still has repercussions today, from North Carolina’s bathroom brouhaha to Gov. Mike Pence’s politicking in Indiana to the GOP’s blatantly anti-gay 2016 presidential platform and beyond. Meanwhile, the Gospel According to Anita is still being hyped by the now 76-year-old from her “ministries” back in Oklahoma. (Say, who ordained her?)
[PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] When Bryant first appears onstage in Interview it quickly becomes apparent that the former Miss Oklahoma is actually being played by a man in drag (co-creator/co-conspirator Copeland). With a wicked wink the cross-dressing bloke depicts Anita as a hokey Okie who’s not okey dokey. She comes across as a daft dimwit from the sticks, a preternaturally stupid, uneducated ignoramus viciously inflicting bigoted Biblical bile on gays (who, as the play points out, Jesus never specifically spoke about). Like most so-called Christian Rightists hers is the Jesus of the apocalypse, not of the Sermon on the Mount.
Overall, throughout much of the 90-ish minute play Bryant is lampooned like a whale being harpooned by dead-eye dicks, and it’s easy to say that the one-acter is prejudiced against her. But it bears keeping in mind that in this theatre of fact production the absurd actor/actress portraying Anita is merely repeating her own words as recorded by Kelley’s tape recorder for his Playboy interview. So the apparent retard is being hoisted on her own petard, although the co-creators added some exposition to provide historical background and context for contemporary audiences.
(Other L.A. documentary theater productions - plays that use pre-existing documents, such as government records, court transcripts, media reports, etc., and then dramatize them for the stage - have included My Name is Rachel Corrie (Theatricum Botanicum), The Laramie Project (the Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre, etc.) and Home/Sick (the Weather Underground drama at The Odyssey). And L.A. playwright Donald Freed wrote the docu-play The White Crow about the trial of Eichmann.)
Interview’s co-creators also added a third character named Gail (Madelynn Fattibene, who is rather cleverly cast, as she portrayed Interview’s title character for West Coast Ensemble in Brian Christopher William’s Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins in 2009), based on Gail Stanton, June 1978’s actual Playboy Magazine “Playmate of the Month.” I believe that this pinup girl’s actual sexy centerfold pix are included in a montage projected onto a screen before Interview’s proverbial curtain lifts, accompanied by blasted period music by David Bowie, Kansas, ELO, etc.
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Said montage focuses on imagery relating to Playboy, the real Bryant and the era’s gay scene. The former is quite a stroll down memory lane - in today’s world saturated by porn, 24/7 cable TV news, talk radio, celeb reporting outlets and more, most people today are likely not to know the once high profile part Hugh Hefner’s men’s magazine played on the American media scene. By combining nude pix (many of these explicit images are shown during the montage for this play that is definitely not for the tykes) of a certain type of busty women with literary fiction, quality journalism and the like in the 1950s, Hef (who is, BTW, currently being depicted in the Showtime series Masters of Sex) and his glossy publication with its circulation then in the millions, became a cultural force and arguably played an important role in the sexual revolution (at least for heterosexual males who yearned to party with Hef at the Playboy mansion).
In addition to centerfolds, the montage’s carefully curated images include pictures of the magazine’s ads, cartoons and interviews. Once upon a time Playboy’s interview section was held in high esteem and as the weighty Q&A, par excellence. It was an important part of the era’s social discourse (just as the pictures were for the era’s sexual intercourse). A common joke then was that one bought the magazine for its articles - not its titillating graphics. To this day, in my own interviews, I often pay homage to Playboy’s literary inquiries of notables by using the term “candid conversation” in my intros.
Adroitly directed by Paul Stein, Copeland’s portrayal of Bryant (kudos to costume designer Jonathan Bryant and wig designer Terry Lee Castillo) is reminiscent of Tina Faye’s caricature of Sarah Palin and of Hawaii comedian Frank De Lima’s devastatingly on target drag depiction of a demented Imelda Marcos when she lived in the Aloha State. Like Charlie Chaplin ridiculing Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictators, these artists realized that mockery is a powerful tool for undermining and exposing dictatorial types.
When Bryant was quite famously attacked in a slapstick way, her presumably gay assailant paraphrased Shakespeare and John Wilkes Booth, proclaiming: “Thus ends all tyrants.” BTW, the way Bryant’s husband failed to protect her and reacts to the sneak attack at a press conference - which is screened during Interview - seems to have contributed to their divorce not long afterwards (a parting of the ways that dismayed Bryant’s pro-hetero marriage fanatics).
Much to its credit, Interview manages to get beyond and beneath its eponymous character’s façade to reveal that this exemplar of the heterosexual, monogamous lifestyle had her own inner demons. Abandoned by her father, Bryant grew to “hate men” due to her unhappy childhood. The conflicted beauty pageant contender commingled coquetry with prudishness. However, having said this, comprehending something is not to condone it: Bryant’s vile vilification of gays was reprehensible. Although the play doesn’t really explore this, in addition to her own troubled psyche and fundamentalist mind (or lack of) set, I believe this media whore pursued her extremely harmful anti-gay agenda also to keep herself in the public eye in a very career- and money-oriented way. Reactionaries often criticize stars when they take a stand on important issues for being opportunist know-nothings currying the media attention they crave, but this second rate celebrity singer-cum-OJ-pitchwoman seems to have epitomized this criticism. And turning to imaginary deities instead of psychologists to solve one’s psychological troubles is no excuse for inflicting misery upon millions.
From a professional perspective, as an interviewer it was quite interesting to watch a dramatization of a journalist carrying out a Q&A with a noteworthy subject. It is astonishing to me that this interview on assignment for Hef took place, often in person, over a period of eight days. Nowadays interrogators for print outlets are lucky to get 15 minutes (often on the phone) before a celeb’s minder breaks in, declaring: “One more question!” Stephen Simon is excellent as Kelley, Bryant’s conflicted Torquemada who also reportedly interviewed George H.W. Bush, Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury and Abbie Hoffman for Playboy. (BTW, look for this questioner’s next interview in the October issue of The Progressive Magazine with actor/activist Viggo Mortensen.)
By the way, I have a small bone to pick with this production’s presenters: In the opening montage several Playboy images are projected onscreen. But they are cropped in such a way that one can’t see the words, so audience members literally don’t get the jokes. But this is a mere quibble - auds should strap their stilettos on and flock to see this thought-provoking play so it will be very deservedly expanded beyond its current “limited run.” In addition to being a good fun time in the thee-a-tuh, Copeland and Whirry’s whirligig is certainly an Interview that stimulates a “candid conversation.” To paraphrase the tagline of Bryant’s old orange juice commercials: “Theatergoing without seeing Anita Bryant’s Playboy Interview is like a day without sunshine.”
Anita Bryant’s Playboy Interview is being performed on Tuesday Sept. 20 and Oct. 11 at 8:00 p.m.; Friday Oct. 7 and Saturday Oct. 8 at 9:00 p.m. at Cavern Club Celebrity Theater, Casita del Campo Restaurant, 1920 Hyperion Avenue, Silverlake, CA 90027. For info: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2591134 or (213)308-1108.