A signed Fun Home T-shirt hangs in front of Pulse nightclub.
On July 24, we arrive at LaGuardia airport at 5 a.m.. It was the morning after doing a double-show-day of Fun Home on Broadway, which ensured that all of us were in various stages of disoriented tiredness. I managed about four hours sleep the night before, but others, including Judy Kuhn, Vanessa Brown (our child wrangler), and 10-year-old Cole Grey, who plays young Christian, slept zero hours. Zell Steele Morrow, 9-years-old and who plays John, was wide-eyed and bouncing off the walls with excitement. But his first trip to Florida would not be a Disney World vacation. Boarding the plane to the Sunshine State the point was driven further home as countless squealing kids buckled in with their families barely containing themselves in their seats. Gabby Pizzollo, our Small Alison, remained eye-of-the-storm calm and pensive, understanding at her young age of 13 that this was not like the fun-filled trip she took to Orlando earlier in the year.
A victorious Tracy Geltman, our company manager seemed relieved to have the first hurdle behind her; everyone showed up on time and was sitting in their seats on a very early flight from New York to Orlando. This achievement alone was worthy of celebration because the logistics of planning this event had been an epic under-taking since Michael Cerveris conceived the idea a month earlier. All of the effort that went into coordination with Orlando locals who donated their time, goods, and services was apparent as we deplaned and boarded a huge luxury motor coach, air conditioned and waiting like clock work. We were off in our giant bus with reclining seats to find the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, the mood growing jovial and sleep-deprived-silly as we began to shake off the cobwebs. As we neared the neighborhood of the theater we saw Pulse up ahead on the left. The rainbow flags and flower wreaths were visible from blocks away and as we approached the nightclub with its makeshift memorial out front we were struck and sobered and silent. 49 lives lost. Countless others changed forever. Only after our big bus rolled past did it dawn on me to ask if we could stop, but our coach was too large and our driver was only authorized to deliver us to the destination, so the answer was no.
At the theater loading dock we unloaded, were processed through security, then settled into dressing rooms with our luggage. The green room was abuzz with local volunteers and theater staff. Catering was setting up and my Fun Homies were looking forward to getting some lunch before we set about the work at hand. I was still thinking of Pulse. I needed to see it. Company manager Tyler Siems and I decided to head back on foot. We didn’t really have a plan as we headed out in 95 degree temperatures with 100 percent humidity when a text popped up on my phone from Liz Armstrong my dear friend and lesbian powerhouse, queer agenda investor, and also one of the donors who made this good will excursion in Orlando possible. She was right on cue pulling up in her air-conditioned rented mini-van to drive Tyler and me down to Pulse.
I had imagined Pulse in a faraway neighborhood, maybe on the seedy side of town. On the news you couldn’t really tell what kind of neighborhood it was in, but I’d imagined it like so many bars I used to frequent in my 20s. But what I saw was a bar in a middle class neighborhood sandwiched between a Dunkin' Donuts and a Wendy’s. What I saw were photos of smiling faces, handsome and beautiful, next to paragraphs describing the quirks, hopes, and personalities of people with their whole lives ahead of them next to offerings of flowers, stuffed animals, candles, and poems. The dead were my gay brothers and sisters, and a mom who was there to celebrate her son and would later lay her body on his acting as a shield and saving his life. And an 18-year-old High School basketball star; she was to start playing college basketball in Pennsylvania this fall. Instead she died in a bathroom stall bleeding to death from a gunshot wound in her arm. There it was again: the dizzy, crushing, enraging, helpless, free-falling feeling. Just like the morning of June 12 when I first heard the news.
As I’ve performed Fun Home on Broadway, downtown at The Public Theater, and even in the workshop stages creating this piece of theater, I’ve let myself believe that we were making a difference, that the world was actually evolving and the power of this piece of theater was changing people and making things better. Art as an instrument of social change. When this lone shooter took these lives on a path to his own suicide, possibly in an attempt to absolve himself of his own sin of being gay, the ramifications of this kind of self-hatred gutted me in a way I wasn’t sure I’d ever fully shake off. I felt like all the hope I’d garnered and all the credit I was giving the power of art was really just bullshit. As I stood in the unforgiving heat among the rotting flowers and the candles of hope melting into grease spots on the hot asphalt, I felt sick. I don’t know what I’d expected to feel but it wasn’t this. I wanted to leave. We drove back in silence.
Lunch was wrapping up in the green room and I noticed that sweet 9-year-old Zell was still joyful and upbeat as ever. His presence pulled me up out of the funk I’d brewed up because it’s proven impossible for me to be in a grouchy mood when the Fun Home kids are around. They are three powerfully joyous personalities. I noticed Zell was wearing a bright yellow Fun Home t-shirt. God love Zell. I said to him, “Can we sign your shirt and hang it at the memorial?”
Photo of Michael Cerveris and the kids
Zell took the shirt right off his back and we all quickly signed it then piled—and I mean piled—into the mini-van. It was so full that the three kids and Roberta Colindrez smushed into the luggage compartment behind the far back seat. We barreled back to Pulse en-masse to hang the shirt before rehearsal. We found a zip tie on the ground and poked holes in the shirt with the car key and I hoisted Roberta on my shoulder as she and Michael fixed our offering to the FBI chain link fencing temporarily erected around the club.
Photo of Michael Cerveris, Roberta Colindrez, and Beth Malone
The night of the show, Kelly Stillwell, our rock-star stage manager, called half-hour. Donning the familiar red Alison t-shirt and black-rimmed glasses comforted me, as they’ve become a second skin for me these past few years. “Places,” said Kelly, and my Fun Homies and I gathered in the darkened wings for a group hug and some truly palpable family love as the band took the stage. We entered in a line to a row of chairs lined up on the enormous stage and Lisa Kron stood at a microphone. But she could not be heard because 2,700 people were standing and cheering and clapping, the sound deafening. The ovation went on and on until it seemed it would never stop. Even when we thought it would abate it surged again and again until tears sprung in our eyes. They were grateful we were there, they needed us in some way, and we were making this night a good night for them in a community that has had so many bad ones. Finally, Lisa was able to introduce us and the show began.
Much of the show itself is a blur to me. I do remember that they wanted to laugh. When Emily Skeggs sang “Changing My Major” the ringing sound of 2,700 people laughing was an incredible thing. At one point I heard a guy down front urging Joel Perez to take his shirt completely off and it made me laugh. I also remember feeling scared for them when the show became emotionally intense. I worried it would be too much too soon, but they didn’t seem afraid to feel. They seemed instead willing participants in being opened up in this way. As we sang the finale, a song of healing and of turning pain into power, I felt a weight I’d been carrying lift off of me. It was in the way these people showed up in their various stages of grief and brokenness and still were open to receiving this gift we wanted to give them. Something about the way they received the show helped me heal.
We bowed, and again, the ovations were humbling and overwhelming. Nadine Smith of Equality Florida came out and told the crowd that a lot of people had sent money, and while money was needed, (the Fun Home event alone raised $113,000) showing up bodily and giving through action, helps people in ways money cannot. It helps people feel less alone, and alone is what you feel when this sort of thing happens. As we exited back into the wings, Gabby finally broke. She sobbed into her hands saying, “I’ve been holding this in all day.” Her face had gone grey earlier as she took in the memorial and she’d been stoic ever since, so her tears were a welcome sight.
After a short talkback we were invited upstairs to a reception. The time was 9:30 PM. The kids went back to the hotel to crash, but the grown-ups rallied even though it felt like the last thing we could do was muster up small talk. But we didn’t have to worry about that because the conversation at the cocktail party was anything but small. Survivors, family members, Pulse employees, and first responders embraced us, thanked us, and drank with us. In doing so I learned Pulse had a very loyal regular crowd like so many bars do. It was the kind of place where people were involved in each other’s lives. It was so familiar story to me because, like so many gay people, it reminded me of when I was newly out and had been rejected by my family. Pulse was just the kind of place where I found people who accepted and loved me. It was a refuge.
In the year-and-a-half that Fun Home has been on Broadway, we’ve done some pretty amazing things as a company. We welcomed UN Ambassador Samantha Power to the show with 17 ambassadors from countries who don’t yet have full LGBT equality. We ran around with a rainbow flag the night the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land across the U.S. I even became the first lesbian protagonist leading lady in Broadway history. Being in Fun Home has made me feel like I put something good into the world, but there’s always more work to do. Every time I turn on the news it seems like the world is out of control and it's hard not to feel hopeless. But that night in Orlando everyone in the building, loving, progressive, hopeful individuals joined in laughter, community, and relentless will to not let hatred win.
We returned to the hotel at 11:30 p.m., it was still 85 degrees. By this time the lack of sleep factored with beer was feeling less painful and more like a pleasant altered state. The hotel pool was like bathwater. As much as we all should have gone straight to our rooms to sleep five hours before the 6 a.m. bus back to the airport, we didn’t. We wanted to be together, and the water felt too good. One by one more Homies joined me in the pool until it was a full on party. Not just actors, but our stage manager, musical director, producer, investor, company managers, PR divas—all in the healing water. Some hadn’t brought bathing suits, so they came in their underwear. It was utopic and hilarious and perfect. In a world that isn’t always forgiving, on a day when our broken, ravaged hearts felt more feelings than we knew were possible, we had this moment of communion with each other. I floated in a feeling of exhausted accomplishment and deep love.
Photo of Cole Grey, Roberta Colindrez, Gabriella Pizzolo, and Zell Steele Morrow
Beth Malone (Alison). Broadway: Tony nominee, Fun Home; originated, Ring of Fire. Off-B’way: Bingo, Fun Home, The Marvelous Wonderettes. Regional: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Denver Center), Sister Act (Alliance Theatre), Annie Get Your Gun (CMT). TV: Will recur as Claudia on CBS’s BrainDead, premiering this June; also The Good Wife, Reno 911!, Judging Amy, What’s On?, One Minute Soaps. Film: The Comedian w/Robert DeNiro, Hick w/Eddie Redmayne, The Interview.