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Big Brother is watching
The censorious Menino administration had no business shutting down a drag blackface show. Plus, the proposed smoking ban should be put out.

MACHINE, A GAY nightclub, recently booked a drag performer for October 18. Youíre not going to get a chance to see the show, though, because the club canceled the performance after a city employee, representing the mayorís office, called the club and urged its management to reconsider the booking.

The city employee, Jerome Smith, Mayor Tom Meninoís liaison to the gay and lesbian community, didnít threaten management with a "cancel the show or else" type of ultimatum. What he did, according to Phoenix contributor Michael Bronski, who reports on the story on page one of this weekís issue, and Menino spokeswoman Carole Brennan, was convey concerns about public safety to the clubís representative and casually let him know that when the show played in New York, police not only shut it down, but shut the club down as well.

If this isnít censorship, itís mighty close. When a representative of the mayorís office (which, along with the state, controls liquor and entertainment licenses) phones with concerns about a scheduled performance, it should come as no surprise that the barís management would shut down the show.

The canceled show featured drag performer Charles Knipp playing his stage persona Shirley Q. Liquor, a black woman on welfare with 19 children. Knipp, who is white, performs after darkening his face with makeup in the style of minstrel blackface. Knipp performed at the gay club the View in New York last month. After one performance, an offended audience member called local activists to organize a protest of the second scheduled performance. About 50 people showed up, along with police, who broke up the protests and issued two summonses to the View for failing to control a crowd and creating disorder in a licensed establishment, effectively shutting down the club temporarily.

Activists took their success in scuttling Knippís second View performance nationwide, notifying contacts in other cities where Knipp was scheduled to perform that they should protest his show. Keep in mind that none of these activists, save the one offended audience member, was protesting something he or she had actually seen. They were organizing to shut down an artistic performance solely on the basis of its reputation.

Is Knippís show offensive? Probably. As a rule, blackface, which originated with white performers blackening their faces with greasepaint or burnt cork and caricaturing plantation slaves as happy-go-lucky simpletons intent on pleasing their masters, is offensive.

But we have no way of knowing for sure if Knipp is a talented performer getting away with outrageous satire ó as Sandra Bernhard does with her rendition of Nina Simoneís "Four Women" ó or if Knippís show resembles the clumsy distastefulness of Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldbergís infamous blackface routine at the Friarís Club in 1994, which won them brickbats from commentators across the country. Not that it matters, anyway. Free speech is free speech, even if itís offensive. Knipp has every right to perform on stage dressed as an aging black woman with 19 children ó if he can find a venue that will host him. And Machine had every right to be just such a venue.

When government officials exercise prior restraint, which is what happened here, they are committing an egregious act ó perhaps the most egregious act a civil servant can commit in our country. Smith told Bronski that the mayor "didnít want to see the show happen" and that Smith was to "see if there was a way to talk to the clubís management" to make sure the show was canceled. Brennan maintains that Menino was "unaware of the whole controversy."

Whoís telling the truth? Who knows? Whatís clear is that a theatrical performance was squelched because a paid city employee, representing himself as a messenger from the mayor, leaned on a nightclub. The activists who mobilized to bombard Smith with phone calls ó namely Sue Hyde of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, performance artist and activist Imani Henry, and the Black Students Organization at Harvard University ó have nothing to be proud of. In fact, they have something in common today with the religious fundamentalists who are protesting Moises Kaufmanís play The Laramie Project, which examines the death of Matthew Shepard.

That said, what they did pales in comparison with what the Menino administration accomplished through Smith: it closed down a show before anyone had a chance to see it for fear of how it would affect its audience. Thatís not good governance; itís oppressive, itís censorious, and itís an outrage.

AS THE PHOENIX went to press, the Boston Public Health Commission was slated to hold a public hearing Wednesday, October 16 on a proposed ban on workplace smoking. In 1998, the city enacted a smoking ban in restaurants, though bars were exempted. The ban now under consideration, which is backed by the mayor, would not only prohibit smoking rooms in workplaces, but would ban smoking in bars as well.

The last time we checked, smoking was legal and responsible for millions of dollars of state tax revenues. So why is our local government continuing its endless hypocrisy by trying to restrict where and when people can light up? If you donít want to smoke, you donít have to. If you donít want to breathe secondhand smoke, you donít have to work in or patronize a place that allows smoking. Rather than instituting sweeping bans, we should let businesses, employees, and patrons decide if they want to allow smoking on the premises. This kind of micro-management by local government is bad social policy and bad business.

It is true that restaurants survived the smoking crackdown five years ago, and many spent heavily to do so by installing mega ventilation systems ó to the tune of many millions industrywide. Now, just several years later, City Hall wants to wipe out that investment. That would be bad enough under any circumstances, but itís particularly hard to take in this adverse economic climate. The ban will be particularly hard to enforce at nightclubs where security is a concern (especially at dance clubs) and admission charges (at live music shows) make it difficult to move in and out of the club. But again, City Hall has no concern for this vibrant entertainment sector that contributes so much to the life of the city. The Massachusetts Hospitality Association, which represents restaurant, bar, and club owners, has said that its members are willing to install even more powerful air filters to "scrub" smoke out of the air. But City Hall isnít interested. Compromise, cooperation, and reasonableness arenít concepts embraced by an administration that sometimes seems committed to squeezing the life out of nightlife.

Let City Hall know how you feel about the proposed ban. Write to the Boston Public Health Commission, which is accepting written comments on the proposed smoking ban (a draft of which can be found at up until November 1. E-mail comments to or send them to: Boston Public Health Commission, 1010 Mass Ave, 6th floor, Boston, MA 02118, Attn: Board office.

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Issue Date: October 17 - Octobre 24, 2002
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