What do cult filmmaker Kevin Smith and Burlington playwright James Lantz (pictured) have in common? They're both taking on the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., with their latest projects — and drawing support from estranged members of preacher Fred Phelps' family.
Smith screened his movie Red State — which features a fictional antigay preacher extremely similar to Phelps — in Kansas City. Lantz wants to bring his play The Bus — a drama about teens, religion and small-town homophobia — to the "front steps" of the WBC itself.
Smith has fame capital to invest in his mission. Lantz doesn't — he's raising money on Kickstarter. But he does have the public support of Nate Phelps, who's been estranged from his father and the WBC since he left home at age 18.
"I left because of the cruelty, abuse and punishment that my father inflicted upon my family and upon me," Phelps says in a YouTube video that he and Lantz filmed recently in Calgary, Alberta, where Phelps lives. He's speaking up because his family is "still inflicting punishment of another kind," Phelps continues, "on military families, churches, schools and the LGBT community."
Phelps says he has "heard from gay teens from small towns all over this country who are haunted by my father's message of hate.” But, rather than try to silence that message directly, he explains, "we have to be creative." A play that dramatizes dilemmas of family, faith and sexuality could do just that.
Burlington audiences saw The Bus in 2006. Lantz got the idea of taking his first play to Topeka after he was invited to bring it to off-Broadway's 59E59 Theaters for an October 2011 production. He started his fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com to produce The Bus both in liberal NYC and in the Phelpses' hometown, as Pamela Polston chronicled in a "State of the Arts" piece in Seven Days, and a May post on Blurt. You can read Lantz's letter to the WBC — and its response — in the latter.
Now that Kickstarter campaign is in its final month. Lantz has pledges of nearly $14K, but he needs $50K total by July 31. Otherwise, he collects nothing — that's the Kickstarter catch.
"Yeah, what we're doing is kind of provocative," Lantz acknowledges in his video message, talking about the plan to perform The Bus "as close as we can get to the Westboro Baptist Church." Beyond just provoking the WBC provocateurs, though, he says, the point is to "tell our story to those families who are still struggling with balancing their faith and the sexuality of a son or daughter."
Nate Phelps puts it succinctly: "I'm supporting Jim's play because I believe in its power to change lives."