by Stephen Sachs
Some days, our building is tagged by graffiti. That’s life in East Hollywood. Some mornings, I arrive at the Fountain front door and discover a freshly sprayed scribbling on our beige stucco facade. It happens. The scrawling is usually small and, most often, gang related. A badass in the hood staking territory. A banger bearing witness. Once inside my office, I let my Technical Director know we’ve been hit. Then I make myself coffee. The graffiti is soon wiped away. No big deal.
I rarely decipher the message. Gang slogans are a code I can’t break. And though the phrase is sometimes personal, about “Diablo” or “Beast”, it never directly targets the Fountain. The statement could have been sprayed anywhere, anytime. It has nothing to do with us.
This time, it did. This time, the message was personal. And it wasn’t graffiti.
Last weekend, we were forced to reschedule a performance of our hit play, Daniel’s Husband. A cast member had booked a TV gig and needed to fly up to Vancouver. This is Tinseltown, right? We’ve been to this rodeo before, many times. We know what to do. Our box office staff contacted our audience for that night and set them up for other performances. As a precaution, we posted a sign on our front door stating that the night’s show had been cancelled. In case someone walked up.
The next morning, we found that a person had scrawled on our sign in black ink: “Hope you close your faggot show.”
Daniel’s Husband is a play about gay marriage. The men in the cast are gay. This hate-note was inscribed on our front wall the final weekend of Pride month, when our city and our nation celebrate equality and inclusion.
Let’s be real. This written slur from an anonymous homophobe is insignificant compared to the gay men and women beaten and killed in this country. I know that. Our nation has a savage history of discriminating “others.” Ask Native Americans. Blacks. Mexicans. Asians. Jews. Women. Compared to the systemic prejudice our nation has inflicted on these groups, the note is a small thing, a trifle. No question. Still, it hurts, is upsetting. More so because though tiny, what larger truth does it tell? Like in a well-written play, the more specific a thing is the more universal it becomes.
In thirty years, I can’t remember the Fountain Theatre ever being hit with a message of hate like this. Sure, every so often we’ll get a heated email of complaint from an unhappy theatergoer. The political and socially conscious nature of the plays we produce often trigger passionate responses from our patrons. That’s the point. Our artistic goal is to engage our audiences in the difficult issues of our time. A free exchange of conflicting ideas is what makes a good play and a free democracy.
This is different. In today’s incendiary political and cultural climate, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the individual who scrawled that vile message with a pen next time might bring a bomb or a gun.
“Something rotten is afoot in America,” posts a gay friend of mine on his Facebook page. In the last month alone, the word “faggot” has been hurled at him three times. “The word no longer has the power to make me want to erase myself, to spare those associated with me embarrassment. But I can’t help worrying how this climate must be affecting those who are younger and more vulnerable, especially transgender Americans who face far more dangerous threats than a nasty cliché. Is this the America we want?”
No, it is not. But this is who we are.
Others on my friend’s Facebook page chimed in. “This happened to my son,’ says one. “It’s unbelievable what is going on. A disgrace and a return to ignorance and vile barbarism.” Another states simply, “I literally get called a faggot on the streets of LA at least once or twice a week.”
The mournful words of Paul Simon call to me in his achingly beautiful “American Tune.”
“When I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.”
The number of hate crimes in this country are on the rise. Los Angeles, in particular, reported a decade-high increase in hate crime from 2017 to 2018. Hate crimes targeting Jews and Latinos increased in California in 2018. The trigger for this bigoted hostility is no mystery. Our country’s moral leadership comes from the top.
“Things are polarized in ways we haven’t seen in recent memory,” says Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director and chief executive. “People are on edge in part because they are following their leaders. When leaders at the highest levels use incredibly intemperate language and repeat the rhetoric of extremists, we shouldn’t be surprised when young people — let alone others — imitate what they see.”
Hate crimes are defined as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender or gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” according to the Hate Crime Statistics Act passed by Congress in 1990. Hate crimes can be committed against people, property or society, and can include vandalism. Minor as it may be, is this gay-slurring note scrawled on our Fountain sign a hate crime? Before scoffing: What if it were a swastika?
For three decades, The Fountain Theatre has produced new plays about racism, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-Semitism, immigration. Whatever the issue, it has sometimes been lamented to us that we’re preaching to the choir. The claim is that issue-driven plays are produced for like-minded people, and those who most need to be changed by our work never see it at all. Clearly, the perpetrator of that homophobic hate-note will never step inside our theatre walls. But beyond our walls, he is out there. Somewhere. In our world, on the street, in our city, he exists. With thousands, maybe millions, like him. We, as artists, must see the world as it is before we can dream of what it can be.
In the theater, we know what our job is. Our job “… is to hold up, as ’twere, a mirror to nature; to show scorn her image, to show virtue her appearance, and the very age its form and pressure.” Our job is to hold up a vision to America of who we are as a country. The good, the bad, and – yes – the ugly. That’s what theater is supposed to do. That’s what the Fountain Theatre will continue to do for another thirty years.
And the Pride flag still flies over the Fountain.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.