Kate Maltby: Comey goes to "Fun Home," a lesbian musical. What does this say about the type of public servant he is?
She says Comey, seen by many as dashing hopes of a first female president, hitting the bold show is still a tough sell
Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom. She writes a weekly column on politics and culture for The Financial Times and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She was on the founding team behind the reform conservative think tank Bright Blue and is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Hillary Clinton went to see “The Color Purple” after losing last November’s election; Mike Pence took his kids to see “Hamilton” after winning.
James Comey? The former FBI director – over the past year one of the most scrutinized men in America – has chosen a bold, lesbian feminist musical, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” for his low-profile/high-profile public appearance. Four days after being fired by Donald Trump as director of the FBI, Comey spent Saturday afternoon with his wife, Patrice, at the National Theater in Washington. Later he posed for a picture backstage with the cast.
There are many questions the country has about former FBI Director James Comey, but now, at least, we know what he does with his down time.
“Fun Home” has been described as an LGBT+ musical. That’s an overly broad category: More specifically, “Fun Home” is a lesbian feminist coming of age tale. One would expect no less from Bechdel, the graphic novelist who coined “the Bechdel test” for a narrative’s feminist credentials: “Does a work of fiction feature at least two women or girls who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy?”
Indeed, a key number in Bechdel’s musical constitutes a celebration of the protagonist’s first experience of lesbian sex. Comey told the cast of “Fun Home” he’d booked tickets after a fervent recommendation from his adult daughter.
It’s an interesting choice. It’s hard to imagine that Ivanka Trump and her father, Donald, after an evening’s nostalgic viewing of old Miss Universe tapes, regularly discuss the latest cultural offerings from the author of “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
So, is Comey, now a political independent but a man who spent most of his adult life as a registered Republican, a closet liberal? His political record shows a solid commitment to moderate conservative candidates: donations to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
And although he downplayed the significance of his visit to “Fun Home” – according to one of the show’s producers, Barbara Whitman, the Comeys bought tickets some time ago and simply decided not to let recent stress ruin their weekend plans – Comey is a man of enough experience in public life to understand that even his downtime is now a matter of international interest.
He is now a high-profile fan of a Broadway musical that exemplifies the “New York values” that Republicans like Ted Cruz have used as a term of abuse.
By sticking to his plans on Saturday, Comey, who cast members said was visibly moved after the show, may have sent a signal about the type of public servant he is. “Fun Home” was a hit in New York, but it couldn’t be more fervent in attacking the hypocrisies of small town Pennysylvania, from which its rebellious heroine escapes. Clinton County, birthplace of Alison Bechdel, was one of the numerous Rust Belt locales that swung the November election to Donald Trump.
“Fun Home” doesn’t give a glowing endorsement to every aspect of modern LGBT life. Bechdel is unflinching about exposing her closeted father’s abuse of underage boys; the pressure he experiences to make a conventional marriage is framed as no excuse.
And the playwright is particularly concerned with lesbian visibility. Her musical, like her cartoon strip, engages knotty questions about competition for power and sympathy within different queer subcommunities. In fact, to appreciate “Fun Home,” it helps to have a basic understanding of modern gay politics.
Any politician who steps through the door – and then backstage to congratulate the cast – may well be signaling that he’s as open to, say, black LGBT author Roxane Gay as radio host Rush Limbaugh.
That doesn’t mean the LGBT community – or the world of Broadway – will rush to embrace Comey in return. The D.C. production of “Fun Home” is led by Kate Shindle, a longtime AIDS activist. More importantly, she’s also been president of Actors Equity since 2015, and last year led the organization to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time.
That candidate was Hillary Clinton, who has publicly blamed Comey for destroying her bid of the White House. Comey is seen by many as the man who dashed liberal hopes of a first female president – and now he’s hitting the East Coast’s boldest feminist musical? It’s still a tough sell.