JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

It’s time to laugh at Westboro Baptist

Updated: 2013-10-14T19:08:53Z

By JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

The Kansas City Star

As members of Westboro Baptist Church gear up to picket Josh Groban this week in Kansas City, a New York musical is sending them to burn for eternity.

Amen to that.

“God Hates This Show: Shirley Phelps-Roper in Concert, Live From Hell,” opens on Wednesday for a five-day run off-off-Broadway at the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre. Its creators hope to bring it to Kansas City, where we’ve long been forced to endure the Topeka-based church’s cascades of hate.

The show parodies Phelps-Roper, Westboro’s chief spokeswoman and daughter of its pastor, Fred Phelps. Here, she’s recently deceased and damned to hell, where she is forced to sing songs like “Death in Your Window” (a spoof of Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window”) and “Stinky Freak” (Think Rick James and “Super Freak”).

Writer/director John J. Caswell Jr. did not want to create a message-heavy, heartbreaker. He opted for laughter. Like the scenes when Shirley gets only Bibles for Christmas. Every year. And she treats them like dolls, dressing them up and playing.

“Really what we’re doing is taking a group of people who are already outrageous and making them less threatening by minimizing their vitriol and magnifying their ridiculousness,” Caswell says. “And yeah, there are a few moments in the show where I feel my lip quivering, but somehow we got there without meaning to.”

The New York press is already salivating over the show and its star, Erin Markey — “A match of performer and role that sounds like sulfuric genius,” wrote Time Out New York.

But how did an NYC playwright come to be inspired to write about the Phelps family?

It started almost five years ago, when Caswell was working on another play, “Closet.drama: A Homo/Hetero Collision” that explored gay youths coming out. Fred Phelps and Shirley Phelps-Roper were characters in the piece, and church members flew to Arizona, where the show was staged, to picket. The Westboro experience was fairly new to him, and he knew right then that he wasn’t done with them.

“Since then, I suppose I’ve become a bit desensitized to their antics. More than anything, I’ve started to find Shirley extremely comical and at times even strangely endearing in her passionate yet delusional sense of earnestness,” he says.

“I’m still amazed at witnessing other individuals first exposed to Westboro. They go through the same process I did, which starts with shock and horror and then leads to eventual dismissal because they finally realize they are simply too ludicrous to take seriously. ‘God Hates This Show’ speeds up that process and gets people to absurdity right away so we can just hurry up and laugh.”

We could use some comic relief in this emotional roller coaster of a year for gay rights. Though the Supreme Court ruled against both California’s Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, same sex marriage still goes unrecognized in Kansas, Missouri and much of the country. And hate crimes against the LGBTQ community persist, as do suicides. Westboro Baptist plays a part in that prejudice.

“While I could never directly point a finger at Westboro,” Caswell says, “I do believe that the poison that spews from the mouths of people like Shirley Phelps-Roper most certainly contributes and encourages already unstable individuals and validates their delusions.”

And here, in the church’s backyard, is where he wants to bring the musical next. A small group of Kansas City area supporters will head to New York to check out the show this weekend. Cathy Jambrosic and her partner, Michele Stauffer, are among them. The team behind the musical saw the Johnson County couple in the 2008 documentary “Out Late,” about coming out late in life, and invited them to get involved.

Here in the Midwest, where Westboro runs rampant and the intolerance is thick, the pair had kept their relationship secret for 22 years. But then came the huge vote back in 2005 to amend the Kansas constitution and ban gay marriage. It passed with ease and pushed them too far. Not only did they come out and get politically active, they got married in Canada.

“We were just fine, living our lives,” says Jambrosic, 65. “But this amendment went against everything I had been taught. Everyone should be equal. There can be no more systematic exclusion of certain people.”

The trip to New York is not just for entertainment. She and Stauffer want to help bring the musical to Kansas City.

“I think comedy can overcome a lot of hardships and miscommunications,” Jambrosic says. “If we just stop for a minute and take a breath and see how ridiculous we really are in the great scope of things, we could change hearts and minds.”

Jeneé Osterheldt’s column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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