The artful bathroom: HB2 and the arts scene

by Lenise Willis

When North Carolina’s legislature passed HB2 — the “transgender bathroom law” which basically states that people must use the public restroom for the gender stated on their birth certificate — the arts scene didn’t exactly come to mind. But after Bruce Springsteen and Cirque du Soleil cancelled their North Carolina tour dates, the role performing arts plays in social and political issues came to light.

Before the bill passed, Greensboro was to host Cirque du Soleil’s newly refreshed family-friendly production, OVO, which brings to life the microcosm of the insect world.

The production promised to be an exciting one, with new projection integration into the show and other new tricks for Cirque. But after the passing of HB2, Cirque rescheduled their tour and released a statement last Friday:

“Cirque du Soleil strongly believes in diversity and equality for every individual and is opposed to discrimination in any form. The new HB2 legislation passed in North Carolina is an important regression to ensuring human rights for all. We therefore choose to cancel our scheduled performances of OVO in Greensboro (April 20-24) and our scheduled performances in Charlotte (July 6-10) and our scheduled performances of TORUK – Avatar in Raleigh (June 22-26).

Cirque du Soleil believes in equality for all. It is a principle that guides us with both our employees and our customers. We behave as change agents to reach our ultimate goal of making a better world with our actions and our productions.”

Theatre has long since had the power to make an audience feel something, to shine a light on social injustice. To provoke thought. To bring to life a message on stage. But HB2 has brought out a different response in the arts community —a financial ploy. While some artists chose to add an eloquent statement at the start of their show, others avoided North Carolina altogether, hoping to take a stronger stance and administer a financial sting.

The Greensboro Coliseum alone reported it is expected to lose $68,000 of projected revenue due to Cirque canceling its seven show dates. Other surrounding hotels, restaurants and businesses will feel the loss, too, as well as local employees who would have worked the event.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan has tried to reach out to artists and organizations, asking them not to punish the city for its state legislature.

From an artistic standpoint, the arts community mostly seems supportive of Springsteen and Cirque’s stance, respecting their dedication to social justice, however, there are still concerns over the financial impact. “We’re a catalyst in the community; we support artists and their right to their own opinions. It’s up to them as independent artists to speak their mind and we think that’s important,” said Tom Philion of ArtsGreensboro. “(With that said) one thing people don’t always think about is the economic impact.” Philion said that the arts scene generates about $118 million of economic impact in Guilford County, making it a top 10 employer in the county. “It’s important to point that out,” he said. “In the end, the arts play a large role in this community and I hate to see us lose those opportunities (due to HB2).”

“People in the arts are in general an accepting and open community,” said Rosina Whitfield of The Drama Center of City Arts.

“We tend to accept people for who they are so I would say we are pretty united in our opposition to HB2 and think it is a backwards and short-sighted law that needs to be repealed. At least that is how I feel personally.

“Getting North Carolina to do that seems to require some pretty heavy moves. Folks such as Cirque du Soleil and Bruce Springsteen are bringing great pressure to bear and hitting the state pocketbook, which is good. Without that kind of high-level response, it is unlikely that the issue would get the attention is it getting. The impact is swift, strong and tangible. On the other hand, we have to live, work, and play in North Carolina and it definitely hurts us when we are unable to attend these events.

“When Stephen Schwartz said he would deny any rights to his shows to be produced in North Carolina that hurt the theatre community, and many small and community theatres will suffer.”

In the end, it seems like the arts are continuing to rally for social justice, as it has throughout history, but it also raises the question of how far it should go. After all, when it comes to affecting a community’s economy, and its citizens’ livelihood and cultural nourishment, the state isn’t the only victim.

Congressman Mark Walker of North Carolina’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes most of Guilford County, has publicly stated that North Carolina is the victim of bullying tactics by outside businesses and political forces. Many wonder if there isn’t another way to push for social change and a better way of life, without hurting the innocent? Then again, money talks, and that may just be the General Assembly’s only language. !