Photography by John Keon Photography
Erin Markey never expected she'd be doing God's work, but it turns out that's exactly what's happening—at least according to Shirley Phelps-Roper and the Westboro Baptist Church.
Markey, a searingly intense, queer-identified actress known for her edgy, alternative stage roles, is starring as a version of the firebrand mouthpiece in God Hates This Show this week in New York City. The satirical cabaret, written by John J. Caswell Jr., imagines the matriarch of the of the Kansas-based organization—known for its hate speech and homophobic protest signs—as recently deceased and consigned to Hell. During the course of rehearsals, Markey was freaked out when she began to receive tweets from Phelps-Roper, starting on her birthday in August, they continued through this week, when the show premiered.
"We hadn't gone into rehearsals yet, and I wasn't in this frame of mind joshing around about all this stuff," she explained. "I'm not interested in having a personal relationship with Shirley, but it feels really personal—the phenomenon of Shirley Phelps-Roper."
Markey also admitted during an interview a few days before the show opened on October 16 that it has been a struggle to fully inhabit such a negative persona. "The weirdest part about doing this, and it may seem really shallow, but I've never felt uglier in my entire life," she said. "There's something about the utilitarian way that Shirley dresses and the insane the way she wears her signs that gets inside your body. The messages themselves feel really ugly, especially the cavalier and dickish way she has of talking to people."
Unlike other occasions, when Westboro would have shown up in force to protest (such as Caswell's last play that imagined Phelps-Roper and Fred Phelps in fictional roles and was picketed by the group in Phoenix, Az.), this time the congregation is excited that they are performing songs that they wrote—such as "Death In Your Window," a re-written version of the Melissa Etheridge song "Come to My Window"—and are re-spinning it as if Markey and Caswell are getting God's message across.
In the short play, Markey sings the Westboro songbook—and is backed up by "demons" played to Anna Marquardt, Allison Guinn, and Adam Enright—and explains fictional childhood reasons why she transformed into the person she is today. Caswell said he finds the seductive rhetoric of the organization's hate speech dangerous, and it's one reason why he revisited the subject.
But Markey, in a moment that exemplifies her extreme empathetic insight as a performer, explained her own perspective on the subject: "The more I watched footage, the more I got to understand how the logic works and why they feel compelled to do what they're doing," she said. "I have a weird respect for the logic and passion behind the logic: because of their ability to go balls-to-wall for the things they believe in. I admire them, although obviously my belief system is very different."
Caswell made sure to clarify that "it wasn't meant to be militant or intended to send a message to Westboro or to react a certain way," but it's clearly been a learning process for everyone. So what's next after the play ends its short run? Caswell said there's already been interest from some people in Kansas City, who are more intimately affected by the church's vitriol on a daily basis. But the gorgeous Markey will certainly be ready to wash the ugly away.
God Hates This Show's short run continues through October 20, at HERE, in New York City.