The City of Cedar Rapids uses the slogan, “Welcome Is Our Language.” The upsetting truth is not all people feel welcome here. In fact, a talented artist recently let me know he was concerned about his safety in traveling to Cedar Rapids to perform his drag send-up of Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth.
This spring Senate File 348 (SF 348), commonly referred to as the Iowa drag bill, proposed massive fines for allowing anyone under the age of 18 to view a “drag performance.” It’s one of many bills introduced this year that targets the LGBTQIA community. While the drag bill didn’t come up for a vote, it and other proposals still have chances to become laws and silence or restrict the lives and livelihoods of people in our state, while also repelling potential visitors.
Mirrorbox Theatre is Iowa’s only company dedicated exclusively to bringing new plays to Iowa, and we’ve been working since this winter to host Chicago’s Tyler Anthony Smith. He’s a writer/performer who holds a funhouse mirror up to classic stage heroines that he plays in drag. OUT, DARN SPOT!, points its satirical finger at Shakespeare’s murderous “Lady M” from May 18-21 at Mirrorbox.
With our performances nearing, Smith shared his fears about coming to Iowa. I asked if he was worried because of his sexuality, or because his show is performed in drag. His answer: “both,” should give all Iowans pause.
When I heard about SF 348, my first thought was: what about theatre? Let’s consider a popular drag show that has played all over Iowa. One production was partially funded by the City of Ames in 2019 and billed as a creative opportunity exclusively for local teenagers who made sets and costumes, and performed their drag show for five nights of paying audiences. This summer, right down the road at Iowa City’s Riverside Festival Stage, municipal funding will support this same drag show, inviting people “young and old.”
Under SF 348 these “drag shows,” also known as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, would result in fines and jail time if a kid saw them – all because the plot revolves around a woman disguising herself as a man. Count out As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice too.
I’m not here to stump for Shakespeare – new plays are my arena and my passion. I’m here to affirm the power of theatre to show us infinite variations on the human experience. It’s completely absurd to label a 400-year-old play a threat to children. The real threat is felt by real people, like Smith, who hear these messages blasting from our state and feel fear, not welcome. He has physical safety concerns, and also the worries of: “Do I have this job? Is that safe? Am I going to prep this show and then some law will make it impossible? Every week there’s news of another school or community shutting down a production because it has LGBTQIA themes – will that happen here? If it happens here, then where next?” It’s a threat to Smith’s entire intertwined existence as a person and as an artist.
I’m an artist who was warmly ushered into this community when I arrived as a trailing spouse six years ago. I also have the privilege of not having to constantly worry about my rights to perform, to marry, or to live as myself being stripped away. I hope that our Eastern Iowa community can embrace Smith and his wild Shakespeare adaptation the same way I felt embraced. If welcome is truly our language, then it is our duty to speak it, often and loudly.
-Cavan Hallman, Producing Artistic Director
Reference: Twelfth Night in Ames
Reference: Twelfth Night in Iowa City