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Gay comedy about Anita Bryant suddenly gets new relevance

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366homoStineBY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Playwright Michael Yawney spent the last three years crafting a comedy about Anita Bryant's 1977 campaign to repeal Miami-Dade County's first gay-rights ordinance. Yawney never expected that on the eve of its world premiere Thursday in Miami, 1,000 Homosexuals would be so relevant.

Earlier this month, voters in Florida, California and Arizona supported statewide gay-marriage bans with nearly the same fervor as Bryant and other Miami-Dade residents three decades ago.

''I thought we were beyond the era in which people would be fighting against gay families,'' Yawney said. ``We have advanced, but I wish we had advanced further.''

Yawney, 46, who also teaches theater at Florida International University, was raised in the steel town Bethlehem, Penn.

''I was in my teens when [Bryant] was leading her campaign. It was very frightening,'' he said. ``I grew up in the '70s and you always thought there'd be less bigotry and more personal freedom.''

To Yawney, who is gay, ''it seemed impossible'' back then that Florida orange juice spokeswoman Bryant could successfully convince 70 percent of Miami-Dade voters to repeal the gay-rights law.

''You only thought the clock was going to move forward,'' he said. ``Her success was a shock.''

Yawney's fascination with Bryant led to him writing a 1988 farce based -- very loosely -- on her life. ''We made her the mother of Burt Reynolds,'' he said. ``It was silly.''

477AhomoStine He read Bryant's autobiography and other writings. ``If you took her seriously, she was more interesting than if you made fun. And she may have been one of the last people to lead a major movement against gay rights who thought she was doing the right thing.''

Yawney relocated to Boynton Beach in 2000 and four years later moved to Miami. In 2005, what is now the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts commissioned him to write his proposed play about Bryant.

''This project is costing close to $70,000,'' said artistic director Octavio Campos, 40, whose Miami company Camposition is producing the play and raising money to present it.

Large contributors include The Arsht Center, which is donating theater space and labor worth $20,000; Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs, which gave about $15,000; and Dade Community Foundation, which gave a $10,000 grant.

Ruth Shack, the foundation's president, also happened to play a key role in the '77 gay-rights campaign. Then a newly elected county commissioner, Shack sponsored the ordinance that outraged Bryant.

1,000 Homosexuals will have five performances this week at the Arsht Center. Miami Beach Arts Council contributed $10,000 for three more performances during Winter Party Festival Feb. 26-28 at the Byron Carlyle Theater on 71st Street.

Campos said he was ''really driven'' to make Yawney's play happen. The two met five years ago when they both taught at the New World School of the Arts in Miami.

``For me, Michael Yawney, I call him my secret weapon. A piece of artwork like 1,000 Homosexuals is hitting different chords in people, not just financial.''

1,000 Homosexuals gets its title from a book by Freudian psychoanalyst Dr. Edmund Bergler, who died in 1962 -- the year Yawney was born.

''It's sort of a socio-political extravaganza,'' Yawney said of 1,000 Homosexuals. ``It's a comedy with music. There are dance numbers.''

Yawney said he carefully researched the play to make sure it's historically accurate. ''Most of my initial work was drawn from newspapers, transcripts of county commission meetings,'' he said. ``Most of the people I spoke with, who really influenced this piece, were the foot soldiers: members of Anita's church and older gay men.''

1,000 Homosexuals is directed by Sheldon Deckelbaum. Seven actors ''play way too many parts'' in the show, Yawney said.

Miami actress Merry Jo Cortada, who recently portrayed the ghost of Ethel Merman in Rising Action Theatre's production of The 11 O'Clock Number, stars as Bryant.

''Now I'm playing another gay icon,'' Cortada said during a rehearsal. ``All I need to do is play Marilyn and Bette and we're all set!''

Though camp at times, Cortada mostly plays Bryant straight, so to speak.

''I just need to present her as fairly and accurately as possible,'' Yawney said. ``By being as fair and accurate as possible in my presentation of her, the audience can make its own judgments.''

Bryant won the '77 gay-rights battle at great cost: She lost both her popular-singing career (Paper Roses, My Little Corner of the World) and her marriage to one-time Miami disc jockey Bob Green.

At age 68, Bryant is remarried and lives in Oklahoma. She has endured a series of bankruptcies and performs occasional gospel concerts.

It's very easy for people to demonize Bryant, perhaps a bit unfairly, Yawney said.

''Today we can easily draw up sides. Back then, the sides were much less clear,'' he said. ``It doesn't help anyone to view her as a villain. I tried to create a perfect world in which her views made sense. She really is a heroine, perhaps a misguided one.''

Photos by Dale Stine

Photo 1: Geraldine, Merry Jo Cortada as Anita Bryant and FernandD Cute.

Photo 2: Kristoff Skalet, Geraldine, Ralph de la Portilla and FernanD Cute surround Merry Jo Cortada.

IF YOU GO

What: 1,000 Homosexuals, a new play by Michael Yawney about Anita Bryant's 1977 anti-gay-rights crusade

Where: Carnival Studio Theater, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $35. For general admission tickets, call 305-949-6722. Miami Beach Pride Festival is sponsoring an opening night reception. VIP tickets including the show and party with cast and crew are $100 each. Call Cindy Brown at 786-210-0613.

Info: www.1000homosexuals.com or www.arshtcenter.org.

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