Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant
nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
August 14, 2009
Just a few blocks north of where writer/performer David Karl Lee is premiering his solo show Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant in New York City is the site once known as the Stonewall Inn. Forty years ago on one particular night at this bar, the gay men and women had had enough of the endless police raids and abusive targeting, so they fought back to stand up for their rights and for their community. The Stonewall Riots became a defining moment in American gay history.
While a sign on Christopher Street serves to remind us of the legacy of the Stonewall Riots, Lee revisits a legacy of another sort—in this case, that of an individual named Anita Bryant, who appeared on the national scene less than ten years after Stonewall to lead a crusade against homosexuality. In a brilliant assemblage of archival news footage, interview transcripts, and satirical sketches that all play out as part history lesson and part drag performance, Lee highlights the absurdity of Bryant's cultural contribution as well as the seriousness and immediacy of her legacy.
A sketch at the top of the show feels separate from the main attraction, but it sets up the context and tone. Playing a "queer trucker," Lee sings the simple-but to-the-point ditty titled, "Fuck Anita Bryant," an actual song that was one of the several creative responses to Anita's crusade in the late 1970s, and then leads the audience in an enthusiastic sing-a-long. It's obvious that this is not going to be a reverent biography of the woman, more so when Lee himself later appears on stage to play Anita Bryant for the duration of the piece.
We quickly learn some biographical details such as Bryant's 1959 Miss Oklahoma title and Miss America runner-up status as well as a brief foray as a recording artist before she settles into her professional career as Florida orange juice spokesperson. What thrusts Bryant into the spotlight, though, is her self-anointed and self-assured role as the crusader of the innocuous sounding "Save Our Children" campaign, specifically working towards the repeal of anti-discrimination laws that would protect gay people in Florida. Her success in bringing attention to her cause brought the issues of gay rights in America to the forefront. At the same time, as oppressive as her agenda appeared, Anita Bryant also inspired an organized movement against her.
While Lee makes clear his opinion of Bryant and what she stood for, he portrays Anita with generally equal measures of camp and poise. In fact, to their credit, director Kenny Howard reins in Lee, so that his Bryant is not an over-the-top performance; there is opportunity for the audience to get curious about the motivations and thought processes of this woman. A lengthy interview with a Rolling Stone reporter during that time grounds the piece, as Lee chooses the revealing excerpts: when asked to describe homosexuality, Bryant talks in circles and contradicts herself before weakly using the Bible as the catch-all authority on the issues. At the same time, Lee adds little hilarious details for the audience's benefit, such as when his Bryant daintily sips on orange juice between her sound bites and the Rolling Stone reporter is represented appropriately enough by an iconic toy.
Lee succeeds when he juxtaposes juicy, fun details, such as lip-synching to Bryant's syrupy songs, and then shows archival footage and news headlines, especially the sobering report that anti-discrimination laws were overturned in Florida's Dade County, giving Bryant the green light to take her campaign far and wide.
However, Lee focuses attention on the other side of the Anita Bryant legacy: the rallying of the gay community and their allies to push back against Bryant. Along with successful boycotts (which eventually get Bryant fired as OJ shill) and general protests, Bryant is also the recipient of a memorable—and edible—protest statement (see title of show). Lee also organizes the audience in an inspired (and inspiring) reenactment of an effective walkout during one of Bryant's appearances.
Finally, Lee brings the show up-to-date about current laws that continue to affect gay people, their loved ones, and families. But he leaves us remembering that for all the Anita Bryants in our lifetime, there will always be people ready to fight back to defend their rights.