Michael Yawney paints a sympathetic picture of Anita Bryant -- brilliantly portrayed by Merry Jo Cortada.
BY JORDAN LEVIN, jlevin@MiamiHerald.com
Despite the title, 1,000 Homosexuals, the powerful new play by Michael Yawney which opened at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday night, is a portrait of Anita Bryant far more than of the gay men she campaigned against in 1977. But Yawney paints such a sympathetic and in-depth picture of Bryant -- brilliantly portrayed by Merry Jo Cortada -- that his play is ultimately a terrifically resonant portrait of the corrosive power of stereotypes.
Homosexuals tells the story of Bryant's successful campaign to repeal Miami-Dade's first gay-rights ordinance in 1977, and her public conversion from cheery, orange-juice drinking, pop-culture icon to champion of bigotry. It would have been simple to make this a two-dimensional satire. Instead, Yawney traces Bryant's conversion, steered by her domineering husband Bob Green (the deliciously smarmy Matthew Chapman) and manipulative pastor Brother Bill (Matthew C. Mur), from a live-and-let-live gal who loves her gay make-up artists to a woman convinced that homosexuals only want to lure children into a sodomizing hell.
Yawney makes the torturous logic that leads Bryant to this conviction simultaneously compelling and absurd. When the talented ensemble of six actors writhes through fantasy musical numbers involving, among other things, neon sexual aids and stuffed animals, we cringe and giggle. The men who prance and simper through this show are as imprisoned by stereotype as Bryant is.
As Bryant, Cortada powerfully holds center stage for the nearly two-hour show. She starts literally up on a pedestal, seated on a six-foot high stool covered by her ruffled white gown as the audience enters, offering orange juice and cookies, and relentlessly chipper. Cortada shows us Bryant becoming steadily more passionate, and then more doubtful, taking us with her emotionally even as the path she's following becomes more ridiculous and more painful. Although Bryant won her campaign to repeal the ordinance, her career and her marriage were destroyed in the process.
Sheldon Decklebaum's supple direction and Octavio Campos' spare production, with a single mobile platform and a few props doing multiple duties, and campy choreography, keep the play moving. Some of the best lines are drawn from history, like Bryant's speech opposing the ordinance to the Miami-Dade County Commission. The pattern of campy musical numbers and Bryant's speeches, and interaction with her husband and preacher as they push her into politics, is a little repetitive -- the same point gets made over and over.
Towards the end, Cortada keeps falling off a ladder as she films her famed ''come to the Florida sunshine tree'' commercial, then is surrounded by mocking men in wings and skirts. ''The fairies will make you a laughingstock -- you'll never progress beyond 1977,'' Ralph de la Portilla tells her.
Given that Florida and two other states just passed laws prohibiting gay marriage, the rest of us are still dealing with the issues of 1977. In the audience Thursday night was Ruth Shack, a friend of Bryant's and the Miami-Dade commissioner who proposed the original gay-rights ordinance. ''It's painful to see that 31 years later we are still discussing the same issues,'' Shack said. ``[Bryant] was not an evil person.''
Photo: Merry Jo Cortada and Ralph de la Portilla by CANDACE WEST / MIAMI HERALD STAFF