REVIEW: Fun Home - The Queer Musical I Did Not Know I Needed

by Connie Mandeville

fun home banner.jpg

When I told my partner she was lucky enough to be my date to a musical that had a lesbian lead character, she was less than thrilled. “A musical?” she asked. Her skepticism was understandable. Accurately portraying the complexity of coming out on a stage through song and dance seems farfetched. But as we watched Alison Bechdel’s story unfold, we both saw parts of our own stories, our own struggles, but also our own victories in her experiences.


Fun Home depicts the story of a queer woman who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town during the 1960s and 1970s. It also follows her journey of discovering her sexual orientation as a college student at Oberlin College in the 1980s. Based on the tragicomic memoir, the story is told by an adult Alison (performed by Robin Gottlieb) while she forces herself through both the happy and painful memories of growing up and coming out of the closet ultimately to write her book. These memories are portrayed through flashbacks with a small Alison (performed by Clare Kerwin) and a college-aged Alison (performed by Cassidy Spencer), and as revealed in the opening scene, these flashbacks are clouded by her father’s (performed by Paul Kaufmann) suicide. Although Alison is the center of the narrative, Fun Home is also the story of her parent’s tumultuous relationship because of her father’s bisexuality and extramarital affairs which led to his death. Her father’s experience living in the closet is touching, but her mother (performed by Marybeth Gorman) triumphs as the tragic hero of the tale because of the sacrifices she made not only to maintain appearances of a perfect nuclear family, but also to keep her family together.


What is so refreshing about the coming out story and queer experience in Fun Home is the balance of both the blissful excitement and the excruciating heartbreak of discovering one’s sexual orientation. It is not an exploitation of queer pain, but instead a celebration of self discovery which is emphasized by solos wonderfully performed by Kerwin and Spencer. From Alison’s nervousness and excitement to attend her first Gay Straight Alliance meeting, to her feelings of validation at her very first sighting of a butch woman, this is more than just the story of her parent’s rejection when she first came out to them. Alison even has a moment of complete ecstasy the first time she sleeps with another woman, a moment so groundbreaking she burst out into song about changing her major to sleeping with her new girlfriend. Although the pains and pleasures of coming out are weaved together to create an accurate representation, Alison’s masculine gender expression is often conflated with sexual orientation which is inaccurate and borderline transphobic. A young girl rejecting dresses and other gender stereotypes does not always lead to a lesbian identity, and there are many transmen who date men.


In the wake of the MeToo Movement, there were aspects of Fun Home that were problematic. Her father is a teacher who had sex with male students who were underage, which is not only statutory rape, but it also perpetuates the stereotype of gay men preying on young men. Her father’s predatory behavior is never fully addressed except for one flippant comment from her mother. It is understandable to overlook her father’s abuse of power not only because of the circumstances of his death, but also because it is difficult to fairly judge someone you love so much. Additionally, Fun Home, both the tragicomic and musical, was created before the MeToo Movement went viral so the writers most possibly lacked the social context to delve into Alison’s father’s crimes.


Despite the tragedies of Alison’s life, Fun Home is not a depressing tale. Instead, the brutally honest depiction of coming out as a lesbian in a rural area was the queer musical I did not know I needed. 

In Guns We Trust by Ed Madden with Bert Easter

"Bert built a crucifix in the backyard." - Ed Madden

guns we trust 2.JPG

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, National Rifle Association spokesman Wayne LaPierre said at a conservative political meeting that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” My husband Bert and I were struck by the religious language LaPierre used, the idea that God grants us, as Americans, the right to carry a gun. For the next few days, we kept talking about this language, this almost-religious devotion to the gun as an American icon, what it represents, what it can do.


I was reminded of an essay historian Garry Wills wrote after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012, “Our Moloch,” in which he compares the American worship of the gun to the stories of Moloch, the Old Testament god of the Canaanites that required the sacrifice of children.  “The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” he says. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”


As we kept talking, we began to imagine a religion of the gun, a chapel to the gun, the gun as a god that requires the sacrifice of children. We imagined a child crucified on a cross of guns, a church banner with LaPierre’s quote. I suggested one of those hokey traditional pictures of the guardian angel hovering over two children, but with belligerent NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch’s head pasted on it, maybe a gun in her hand.

guns we trust guardian angle.jpg

A few years ago, as part of a collaborative show centered on the image of Saint Sebastian, Bert and I designed an interactive chapel to Sebastian. The show was organized by Alejandro Garcia Lémos and Leslie Pierce at Friday Cottage in downtown Columbia, and featured a range of artists—visual art, sculpture, stained glass, performance, film, poetry—all exploring the iconography of the saint and the historical status of the saint as a gay icon. In our little chapel, there was an altar with votive candles and a statue of the saint, surrounded by any little plastic figure I could find with a bow and arrow (cowboys and Indians, Vikings, even a Smurf). There were church pews, banners, and a shrine where you could write down your prayers, shames, or desires on strips of red paper and pin them to the body of the saint. By the end of the evening, it was covered with red ribbons of prayer.


So we imagined a chapel to the gun. A window diorama. We would call it In Guns We Trust, our national motto inscribed on all currency, evoking thus national patriotic and religious (and perhaps commercial) resonances. We asked Tapp’s Arts Center—perhaps a little in jest, since we are not trained visual artists—if we could do a window installation. They said yes. So we began work in earnest, hoping to get it installed in advance of the March for Our Lives.


Bert built a crucifix in the backyard. We bought toy rifles and machine guns. I bought Dana Loesch’s 2014 book, Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America.  I looked up LaPierre’s infamous press conference on December 21, 2012 after the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where he said, “The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 


I began to read more and more about how American attitudes toward guns suggested something sacred. “How can we determine if we are in bondage to an idol?” asked theologian John Thatamani in “The Price of Freedom? Child Sacrifice and the American Gun Cult.”  “Intensity of reaction is a sure-fire marker that we traffic with the sacred,” he said.  “We know that the gun has become a sacred object because it commands unquestioning reverence. Interrogating its sacral status triggers anger and even death threats.”


After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Garry Wills wrote, in “A Nation Captive to the Gun”:  “God gave us guns to show us who we are. Giving up the gun would be a surrender to evil, taking us abruptly into eschatological time.” Eschatological, meaning end times, death and judgment, the end of the world.


“So this time,” Wills continued, “let us skip all the sighing and promising and moments of silence. Why keep up the pretense that we are going to take any real and practical steps toward sanity? Everyone knows we are not going to do a single damn thing. We can’t. We are captives of The Gun.”


“The Gun is patriotic,” he wrote, “The Gun is America. The Gun is God.”


I found that the psalm Dana Loesch cites in her acknowledgments, Psalm 144:1, was inscribed on AR-15 rifles by a gunmaker in Florida in 2015.  “Blessed be the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”  The gunmaker said he hoped a Muslim terrorist would be struck by a bolt of lightning if he picked up the gun.


I was struck by the fact that the toy guns we bought for the installation all had the gun safety integrated into the mode switch, so that you can toggle between safe, semi, and automatic. On the cheaper guns on which the accessories were molded, the switch is permanently set on semi. We’re set on semi-safe.


guns we trust 2.JPG

In Guns We Trust, our window installation at Tapp’s on Main Street is meant to draw attention to the almost religious devotion to guns in America, which prevents us from talking about reasonable control legislation. It is a chapel to the gun with banners (including the February quote from Wayne LaPierre and another intoning, in good Republican fashion, "Now is not the time"), a communion tray with cups filled not with wine but with spent AR-15 bullets. On the left side of the window, a poem called “Semi.” (We’re set on semi-safe.)  On the right side, passages from some of the things I’d been reading. There is a trinity of toy machine guns in the air, their laser targets trained on the sidewalk. There is an image of Dana Loesch as the traditional guardian angel, and a child crucified on a cross made of guns.


We hope the window raises awareness, or at least questions, about our American devotion to guns. We hope it helps to start conversations. We clearly need to start talking. Maybe now is the time.


Ed Madden is the poetry editor for Jasper Magazine and the poet laureate for the City of Columbia, SC. 

Film & Book Reviewers Wanted


“The Phantom Thread was a sanctimonious exercise in smuggery!”

“The Shape of Water was a retelling of Splash with fewer fins!”

“Get Out is the best movie ever made and changes the playing field for films forever!”


Ever feel this way about a film (or book) and want SOMEone SOMEwhere to hear you out?  You’ve come to the right place!

The Jasper Project is looking for book and film reviewers for the What Jasper Said blog. Both new and classic subject matter is open for consideration. Reviews should be 600 words or less and sent to Jasper Magazine editor at Feel free to query first at the same address.


Shaky Knees Festival Preview May 9-11

sk_logo1 We here at Jasper had our eye on Shaky Knees Festival last year when it launched in downtown Atlanta—for rock fans, it was a nice mix of marquee indie talent mixed with a host of accessible names all the way down the bill, and for a decent sticker price ($99 for a two-day ticket). By all reports, last year’s effort, despite colder-than-expected temperatures and a rainy Saturday, was largely a success, a well-planned event that sold out by Sunday afternoon. That, it seems, was enough to embolden the organizers to up the ante.

This year the festival expands to three days and moves to a new location—Atlantic Station—to  accommodate a much larger crowd and a serious line-up that is anchored by such beloved (and commercially successful) indie rock bands as Modest Mouse, The National, and Alabama Shakes.

Those names alone made the advance 3-day pass (at $150) quite the steal and, although those have now sold out, 1-day passes are still available for $85 a pop, and each day features some high-quality acts that, along with the day's headliner, make for a great day or two of music-seeing for any serious fan. We'd like to highlight a few of the supporting acts each day who we think make this year's festival such a draw.

Friday – Headliner: The National

Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires @ 4:00pm

Bradley is a James Brown impersonator-turned-retro soul revival leader who dropped his first album at the ripe age of 62. Since then, he and his Menahan Street Band collaborators have wowed audiences with their vintage sound and Bradley’s emotionally charged performances which take the theatrics of Brown and fuse them with something even more powerful and harrowing. The man has to be seen to be believed, but curious fans should check out the documentary on the singer available on Netflix, Soul of America.

Spoon @ 8:00pm

These well know rock and roll soul minimalists could probably have swapped headlining spots with The National without much of a fuss, given that their tight-pocket grooves and elegantly simple pop hooks are practically direct-engineered to get a large festival crowd grooving and swaying.

Other Friday Acts: American Aquarium, Mutual Benefit, Blood Red Shoes, Sleeper Agent, Wild Belle, The Whigs, White Denim, Bright Light Social Hour, Band of Skulls, Man Man, Dropkick Murphys, Foals, The Airborne Toxic Event, Graveyard, Cage the Elephant, & Gaslight Anthem

Saturday – Headliner: Modest Mouse

Hayes Carll @ 2:15pm

One of several under-the-radar alt-country talents on the festival’s line-up, Carll writes in the finest traditions of the Texas troubadour, crafting clever honky-tonk rambles and wizened and heartbroken ballads with aplomb. With a near-literary eye for detail in his character sketches and elegantly wrought metaphors, Carll is just the kind of singer/songwriter to check out early into a festival day.

The Replacements @ 8:00pm

I’m actually more excited about this recently-reunited band of college rock ruffians than any other act at the festival. Although only frontman Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson remain of the original members, this is still a chance to hear an avalanche of classic tunes that formed much of the early canon of indie rock.

Other Saturday Acts: Wake Owl, Fly Golden Eagle, Packway Handle Band, Apache Relay, Gregory Alan Isakov, The Districts, Tokyo Police Club, Lone Huron, The Lone Below, Phox, Dawes, Portugal the Man, Cold War Kids, Houndmouth, Conor Oberst, and Jenny Lewis

Sunday – Headliner: Alabama Shakes

Jason Isbell @ 3:45pm

This former Drive-by Trucker doesn’t need much to sell him to Southern rock fans—he’s penned sprawling guitar brawl classics like “Decoration Day” and has the kind of soulful delivery that allows him to effortlessly cover both Van Morrison and The Band, so his ability to deliver a first-rate live show is never in doubt. With the release of last year’s Southeastern LP, though, Isbell has also firmly established himself as a songwriter of what could be timeless quality, with songs like “Elephant,” “Live Oak,” and “Cover Me Up” sounding damn near like classics that will still be in circulation among songwriters generations from now.

Violent Femmes @7:45pm

Although far more of a cult band than even The Replacements, Violent Femmes were also a hugely influential band that also boasts their fair share of counter-canon classics, none more so than the over-played (but still awesome) “Blister in the Sun.” Their set is worth it to hear thousands of fans shout these zany lyrics together in unison. It will likely be the kind of pure musical moment that you can only get in a festival setting.

Other Sunday Acts: Benjamin Booker, Paperbird, San Fermin, Langhorne Slim & the Law, Mason Jennings, Deer Tick, The Weeks, Blitzen Trapper, Jackie Greene, Iron & Wine, Trampled by Turtles, The Hold Steady, Local Natives, Kopecky Family Band, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

-K. Petersen