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Local History

The Normal Heart

“Preceded by a war of words over its portrayal of homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic, ‘The Normal Heart’ premiered peacefully Wednesday night at Southwest Missouri State University.

“Except for watching over a lone protester and a brief candlelight vigil memorializing people with AIDS that took place two hours before the 8 p.m. show, several dozen city police and SMS security officers guarding the Craig Hall performance site had little to do on the outside.

“Inside, officers scrutinized audience members entering Coger Theater. Several officers remained in the theater during the play, with some standing in the entryways and others in plain clothes sitting in the audience.

“The play went on without incident inside the theater, and the audience gradually appeared to be drawn into the story, leaving outside the past month’s uproar of rallies, news conferences and petitions. The sounds of laughter and sniffles punctuated the performance, which elicited a standing ovation at the end.

“‘I thought it was an extraordinary play. Very moving. Educational,’ said SMS student body president Jim Bornemann.

“‘The Normal Heart,’ by New York author and gay rights leader Larry Kramer, dramatizes the plight of gay men confronting the AIDS epidemic that began in the early 1980s.

“Opponents of the play, including state Rep. Jean Dixon, R-Springfield, and Citizens Demanding Standards leader Paul Summers said the play promotes homosexuality. They said the play is obscene, goes contrary to the moral standards of the community and should not be supported with tax money.

“SMS president Marshall Gordon attended the play, sitting in the front row. He left immediately afterwards and was unavailable for comment. None of the Board of Regents attended except student regent Joe Passanise.

“Besides the small group that held a 6 pm candlelight vigil, a few other people stood at the Craig Hall doors even though they didn’t have tickets for the performance.

“SMS juniors Cindy Stiles of St. Louis and Sheila Harvey of Kansas City said they wanted to see what was happening, but concluded it wasn't too much.

“Meanwhile, in the Craig Hall lobby and inside Coger Theater itself, the opening-night audience of 175 plus was greeted by an intimate set. Chairs were placed on stair-stepped platforms surrounding the stage on three sides. It was easy to see and hear the performance.

“Anti-AIDS posters and graffiti were everywhere. Sayings included, ‘Apathy Will Kill You,’ ‘Talk to your kids - it can save their lives,’ ‘So he loves you, but does he have a condom? Do you?’

“The play’s director, theater professor Mike McElhaney, took the unusual step of addressing the audience before the first act. He said that hundreds of people had become ‘authorities’ on the play from reading the script, but it doesn’t become a play until the actors, technicians and set all come together.

“‘Thank you for being here,’ McElhaney said. ‘We’ll create the play.’

“While opponents continued their unsuccessful fight through Tuesday to have SMS cancel the play, Dixon and Summers said they would not demonstrate as the play was being performed.

“Dixon said she was going to spend the evening with her family. She said they had planned to have dinner, go to church at Cherry Street Baptist Church and possibly meet friends for coffee after services.

“The play was covered by news agencies from outside Springfield, including Cable News Network, which sent a crew from Chicago and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper. The CNN reports were expected to air throughout today, producer David Steck said. 

“The subject of the play never came up during the Cherry Street service. The topic of the evening focused on the church’s 30th anniversary celebration and plans for a new building.

“Reflecting on the play’s first performance, SMS Bradley said the audience ‘Now fully understands this is a play about human beings and ones that the audience can care about deeply regardless of what their sexual persuasion may be.’”

News-Leader November 16, 1989.

The photograph above shows students and residents at a rally on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University to protest opposition to the play, The Normal Heart. About fifty people turned out for the march. It was published in the News-Leader, October 29. 1989.

You can check out a copy of the movie, The Normal Heart from the Springfield Greene County Library.

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