Finding true love in a world where most folks' biggest decisions in dating involve swiping left or right, is a special occurrence. Aspects related to love and culture wars are explored in playwright Marc Acito's Birds of a Feather, a play that predates the technological boom and gay marriage legalization across the U.S.
In the play, being staged at Duke Energy Theater by the Queen City Theatre Company from Nov. 5-14, birds are used as a means of addressing love and relationships — in and out of the LGBT community — while also addressing topics related to self-identity, fame and social rallying.
Based off of two true events involving feathery creatures: a pair of red-tailed hawks (Pale Male and Lola) whose nest in New York City was removed at a co-op in 2004, sparking outcry from celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore; and a pair of same-sex penguins (Roy and Silo) at New York City's Central Park Zoo who coupled to raise a chick (Tango) together, inspiring the much-debated children's book, And Tango Makes Three.
The book, released in 2005, sparked protests and continues to ruffle the feathers of anti-LGBT conservatives. It has been banned in numerous school systems and according to the American Library Association, it remains one of the most-banned and contested books in the states. It ranked number three on the "Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2014" for reasons concerning "anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint and being unsuited for age group," as well as "promoting the homosexual agenda."
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has 19 copies of the book at 13 Charlotte locations. The book is also in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, though former superintendent Peter Gorman considered banning the book in 2006. The decision was left for review by a committee who chose not to ban it from the school system.
Acito, who was largely influenced by protests related to the book, wrote Birds of a Feather in 11 days, after the idea came to him during a feverish sickness. He was pondering the two bird-related events happening in New York City at around the same time period and how striking the uproar over both of them had become.
"Human beings had anthropomorphized these two situations in a way that really exacerbated the culture war. In both cases, the protests were not just about these situations but became something much larger about cultural issues related to marriage, family, equality and gender roles," Acito says. "I found it fascinating that human beings, frankly, could have such bird brain behavior."
This influenced his telling of the story from the perspective of the birds who, while living their own lives, were watching the humans observe them and act out in bizarre ways. There is also a third relationship, between a birdwatcher and zookeeper that emerges through the ongoing bird drama.
For Queen City Theatre Company director Glenn T. Griffin, performing the show was a no-brainer. He'd never seen it performed live, but found it when searching for LGBT plays the troupe could perform for its 2015/2016 season.
"I really wanted something sweet and funny and something that was telling a love story," Griffin says. "It really has a good message about gay parenting, but also about love and how there are so many different versions of love."
While writing the play, Acito — an openly gay playwright who has been committed to his partner (now, husband) for 29 years — believed he was writing a play about politics, but feels the end result is about love.
"When I wrote the line 'Love is a rare bird,' I realized what the play was," Acito says. "It's really not about politics, it's about how the need to bond transcends gender, sexual orientations and species. It's a fundamental need of all living creatures to connect and much of my work is about people loving each other more compassionately. Love is so hard to find, that to prevent anyone from experiencing that joy is simply cruel. With regards to an unconventional relationship, who is anyone else to stand in the way and why is love, of all things, so threatening?"
First performed in 2011 in Fairfax, Virginia, the play typically stars four actors who play multiple parts. QCTC's production of Birds of a Feather stars Kristian Wedolowski, Stephen Seay, Robbie Jaeger and Karen Christensen. This is the first time that the play — one-hour and 40 minutes long with an intermission — has been staged in the Queen City.
"There are parts of the country where gay marriage feels almost like no big deal and there are parts of the country where it feels like a really big deal," Acito says. "Strangely enough, this play often gets performed in more conservative environments, which is great. I love that."
And while Acito's Birds of a Feather debuts in Charlotte for the first time, his Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a musical about Judy Garland whose father was a closeted gay man, prepares for its world premiere at Flat Rock Playhouse in Flat Rock, North Carolina, later this year (Nov. 27-Dec 19). Though Acito has no specific ties to the South, this means two of his plays — both of which place an emphasis on gay parenting — are being performed in the Carolinas around the same time.
It's been a busy year for Acito, who resides in New York City where he is currently working on Broadway for Allegiance, a mission-based play that he wrote the book for about the Japanese-American internment during World War II, as inspired by the real life story of George Takei.
"As a writer, I'm very interested in celebrating humanity but also interrogating it. That's true of Allegiance and that's true of Birds of a Feather," Acito says. "We are examining some of our worst behaviors here but at the same time celebrating some of our most noble behaviors. In that case the light always outweighs the dark, because I'm a silver-lining kind of person."
Though parts of Birds of a Feather do emphasize the hardships that come from making relationships work and having a normal family life in the face of objectors, it also emphasizes the need for human connection. That need is something that Acito, who has also worked as a journalist and novelist, gets out of working in theatre. He weighs in on modern day dating and the pros and cons of technology.
"I think the phenomenon of 'fomo' [fear of missing out], is really impacting people's ability to connect to one another," he says. "It's one of the reasons why I'm so committed to writing for the theatre. It's like E.M. Forster said in Howards End: 'Only connect.' Those are two words I live by and theatre provides the opportunity to have that real molecular connection with other human beings."