It's been more than a dozen years since it was published, but And Tango Makes Three remains one of the country's most banned children's books. The penguins in Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson's story of Central Park Zoo's famed same-sex avian couple still evoke consternation from those who insist that only hetero penguins should be allowed to raise chicks.
With the play Birds of a Feather, playwright Marc Acito revisits Manhattan's Roy and Silo, two male penguins who hatched and raised a chick together. Opening April 27 at Lincoln Park's Greenhouse Theater Center, Birds of a Feather isn't an adaption of the book so much as an anthropomorphic exploration of the controversy Silo and Roy set off.
"They sparked a huge culture war," Acito said. "But it wasn't just Silo and Roy. Lola and Pale Male were literally overshadowing them sometimes." That would be the Upper East Side's Lola and her mate Pale Male, a hetero hawk couple who shared a posh building with the likes of Mary Tyler Moore and Woody Allen.
While Silo and Roy nested with their adopted chick in the zoo, Lola and Pale Male made their home at 927 Fifth Avenue, fewer than 200 feet east of the penguin family. Plans to roust the hawks from their roost on the building's exterior were met with vociferous protests. Breaking up the family, Lola and Pale Male's advocates said, would be cruel.
"The way people anthropomorphized both couples was kind of amazing," Acito said. "People dressed up as birds and protested in the street." For weeks, the traditional family values of the hawks and 'the gay agenda' perpetrated by Silo and Roy made headlines.
"There was also a class issue," said Acito. "The idea that these incredibly rich people on Fifth Avenue could evict this poor hawk family, that made people angry."
Director Jacob Harvey sees a good deal of humanity in birds of Birds of a Feather. "It's got a deeply political narrative and it speaks to the issue of identity, whether it's heteronormative or not. I fell in love with the fun, colorful world of the book and I love how that translates to the stage, It's a really complex, human story told in a fun way," Harvey said.
Many remain who would put "And Tango Makes Three" out of sight. "There was one woman [in the play] who read it and decided it was porn since the two male penguins slept in the same bed," Harvey said. She was stymied, he added, when asked whether the "Curious George" books were also porn, given that that the titular monkey and his owner The Man in the Yellow Hat also slept in the same bed.
"The fact that this book is still controversial is a reminder of where we are in our current political moment," Harvey said. "We can put a lens of politeness over it, but racism and homophobia are prevalent. We've made great strides at becoming a loving and accepting society, but there is still a lot of work to do," Harvey said.
Acito credits And Tango Makes Three with spurring him to write Birds of a Feather and to become a voice for marriage equality: "I wrote the first draft of this in 2008. I was absolutely fueled by my outrage over gay marriage at the time." When the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Acito says he felt like a fog had diffused.
"That was pivotal. That was the first time in my entire life that I felt safe in my own country," Acito said. "When the decision came in, I felt like this cloud had lifted. It was a cloud so ubiquitous that I didn't even realize it was there until it was gone.
"There's a line that really resonates with me'Love is a rare bird.' That's true. Love is so rare in this life. When you find it, you don't want anything standing in the way. I don't know how you speak to those who'd disagree with that. But I think this play has to power to do just that."
Birds of a Feather runs though Sunday, June 10, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $35-$45; visit GreenhouseTheater.org .