Once upon a time, I wanted to send Fred Phelps to hell, or rather, hell’s waiting room. Or maybe it was purgatory. It was going to be part of this play I was writing, but it didn’t make the final cut, and now Fred is dead, and my friend and co-writer Jerry Stropnicky says the scene’s time has come. Maybe. I don’t know.
Anyway, my psyche and my bleeding heart needed the scene at the time, and in all fairness to me, it was an excellent scene and would have been a fine addition to our play as a few minutes of light entertainment (I will agree to disagree with those who disagree) — still, the scene would have been a lie, it would have contradicted the whole of what we’d made, and the play was already too long, so ‘Fred in Hell’ got jettisoned. But I loved the scene at the time. It was a powerful, quick rush, giving Fred his comeuppance, because in doing my research before writing the play, I really grew (or shrank) to despise this miserable hatemonger and his Westboro (so-called) Church.
In the scene, Fred enters a waiting room where a receptionist calls out numbers intermittently. There are a couple of characters waiting, reading magazines, or trying in vain to get a cell phone signal.
One of them is a dog (a recurring character from the play). Another is a guy in hiking gear (who dies in a very early draft of the play, another scene that went away). And there is a soldier, who is waiting specifically to meet Fred so he could tell him, “I am the answer to your prayers.”
Fred, still unused to being dead, is puzzled, so the soldier explains, “Your church protested at my funeral, carried signs that said, ‘pray for more dead soldiers.’”
The soldier is genuinely curious, but ultimately let down, because Phelps isn’t nearly as scary as he imagined, just a frail, mean, dead old man in a windbreaker and a cowboy hat. The soldier’s number gets called, and he picks up his backstage pass to the universe, leaving Fred to spend eternity in a waiting room with only back issues of The Advocate to read.
The scene didn’t work because it was a betrayal. The scene before it is about a persecuted gay kid learning how to forgive, and a community learning that its collective humanity was stronger than the things – like Westboro – trying to tear it apart. A thumb in Fred’s eye as a comedic exclamation point (no matter how good it made me feel, or how enjoyable it would have been to the audience – and it totally would have been) was too sharp a turn in the final lap. It just wasn’t right.
Besides, I’m kind of leaning toward loving Fred a little bit, especially now that he’s dead. I have Jill Crunkleton and Branch Rickey to thank for that.
Jill is my friend, a musician and hospice social worker and actress who has performed the last four years or so in the Headwaters plays. Quite simply, she has been one of the key ingredients in making that project a great success – a generous, natural, powerful presence on stage, and so freaking much fun off it. Jill also is one the most naturally compassionate people I know.
One night during rehearsal she explained how she believes Fred Phelps is serving an important role in the world, a necessary one, an acceptable whipping boy, playing the part of the most vile villain in order to bring other people together for the common good — the common good being the exact opposite of everything Phelps stood for, or skulked for.
That image of Fred, as sort of a macro Judas, is what helps Jill wrap her lovely mind around something that spewed so much hate. Fred, she said, was on a mission from God.
Branch Rickey, of course, was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers who fostered the breaking of baseball’s racial barrier, bringing Jackie Robinson to big league baseball.
Recently I rewatched 42, the Robinson biopic. There’s a pretty strong scene in which Robinson is the target of merciless abuse from Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman – the vile villain, the Phelps. Chapman drops N-bombs like they were crumbs, orders his pitcher to throw at Robinson.
The abuse is disgusting and very public, not unlike Westboro’s ‘protests.’
One of the Dodgers, Eddie Stanky, stands up to Chapman in defense of his teammate, “why don’t you pick on someone who can fight back.” Stanky is the common man, the salvageable soul, a man of the South with racist leanings who gets a glimpse of the bigger, brighter picture.
Rickey is the enlightened man, who grasps the big picture wholly, instantly. When the Dodgers’ PR man is fuming over Chapman’s behavior, threatening to go over to the Phillies’ clubhouse to punch the redneck lout, Rickey explains, “Chapman is doing me a service,” then he explains about sympathy, the meaning of the word.
Chapman, like Phelps, unwittingly serves a higher purpose. Doesn’t mean I have to like him. But I would like to rewrite that never-to-be-seen scene.
In the new version, Phelps arrives in the afterlife waiting room. Its walls are covered with portraits of Jackie Robinson, Harvey Milk, and so forth. Chapman is there in his Phillies uniform, but in garish blackface that won’t wipe off.
Phelps, dressed like Oscar Wilde, sits down a couple of chairs away from Chapman, reaches for the stack of magazines in front of him, looks over at the stack in front of Chapman and says, “hey bub, trade you one of these Advocates for a copy of Jet.”