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Acclaimed Play About Homosexuals, AIDS Ignites Controversy

November 1, 1989

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ University officials will not stop production of a critically acclaimed play about homosexuals and AIDS despite a group’s claim that it glorifies homosexuality and promotes anti-family values.

Marshall Gordon, president of Southwest Missouri State University, said the school will not yield to detractors of ″The Normal Heart″ and will allow it to be shown at a campus theater Nov. 15-20.

″The play, we feel, is irresponsible,″ said Paul Summers, chairman of a citzens group he says numbers about 100 people. ″There’s nothing educational, there’s nothing artistic about it. We take strong exception to the language, to the portrayal of homosexuality and its political agenda.″

Gordon said Tuesday that students clearly have a consitutional right - and given the growing number of cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, even a duty - to produce such a play.

″I’ve said all along that the university should promulgate the truth about the AIDS issue,″ Gordon said. ″The university community, the city, state and nation should be aware of the problems that are posed by the threat of AIDS. To continue to sweep the issue under the rug is not in the nation’s long-term interest.″

The controversy began last month when a student at the university, which has an enrollment of 19,000, gave a copy of the script to Republican state Rep. Jean Dixon.

″The play is, in my opinion, political propaganda to evangelize and recruit young people to the homosexual lifestyle,″ she said.

Mrs. Dixon asked Gordon, the Board of Regents and arts and letters Dean Bethany Oberst to prohibit the drama department from staging the play. Department officials refused after consulting attorneys, who said canceling the production would violate the students’ constitutional rights of free speech.

″The Normal Heart,″ by Larry Kramer, is set in New York in the early 1980s. The drama, which premiered off-Broadway in 1985, attacks society’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic.

Kramer said he was amazed the play was controversial in Springfield. The city, with about 150,000 residents, is the international headquarters of the Assemblies of God church and home to several religious-affiliated colleges.

″The play has had over 600 productions all over the world and this is the first time this has happened,″ Kramer said from his Manhattan apartment. ″I wonder what exists in Springfield that doesn’t exist anywhere else.″

The opposing group, Citizens Demanding Standards, took out a full-page advertisement Sunday in The News-Leader in Springfield denouncing the play.

″Do you want your tax dollars to promote homosexual, anti-family lifestyle?″ the ad asked.

Gordon said feedback he is getting shows the majority of townspeople, and by far most students and faculty, support the play. Members of the Faculty Senate voted 37-1 Tuesday to support the administration’s decision to allow the play to go on.

He said actress Kathleen Turner, a graduate of the university, called him Monday to praise school officials for standing behind the play. Ms. Turner contacted two other SMSU theater graduates, actors John Goodman and Tess Harper, and the three plan to visit Springfield during the play’s run to show their support, Gordon said.

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