Could Tennessee’s drag bill repel Broadway shows and other Chattanooga area events?

The cast of "My Fair Lady" performs at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. Men dressed in women's clothing prompted at least one theater-goer's complaint after a recent performance of the show in Chattanooga. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)
The cast of "My Fair Lady" performs at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. Men dressed in women's clothing prompted at least one theater-goer's complaint after a recent performance of the show in Chattanooga. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

Could the passage of Tennessee's bill limiting drag performances mean Chattanooga and other cities in the state could be hindered from presenting Broadway classics such as "My Fair Lady," "Cabaret" and "Chicago?

According to a legislative summary, the legislation "creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult."

It passed as House Bill 9 on Thursday, after passing as Senate Bill 3 earlier in the month. The bill will go back to the Senate for concurrence with a House amendment before going to Gov. Bill Lee for a signature.

Nick Wilkinson, executive director of the Tivoli Theatre Foundation, said in a phone interview the organization is keeping an eye on the situation and how it might impact shows such "Chicago," which opens Tuesday at Memorial Auditorium.

Spoiler alert for those planning to go to the show this week: Mary Sunshine, a leading character who sees a little bit of good in everyone, typically features a man in drag, something that is kept from the other characters and the audience until a key moment.

Critics have pointed out the show features elements of old Vaudeville shows, which typically featured men in drag, and Mary is presented in drag to emphasize that things are not always as they seem.

The Tennessee bill, presented by Republican Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin, defines an "adult cabaret performance to mean a performance in a location other than an adult cabaret that features topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers, regardless of whether or not performed for consideration."

While some have questioned whether that might be applied to venues like Memorial Auditorium or the Chattanooga Convention Center -- which hosted Con Nooga, which featured a burlesque and drag show in the evening for adults -- Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said by phone Tuesday that he would recommend organizers check with the city's attorney on how the bill might impact future events.

"This is about children and protecting them just as we do with movies," Gardenhire said.

Attempts to reach officials with Con Nooga were unsuccessful, and representatives for "Chicago" declined to comment.

Some argue the law is too vague and could have unintended consequences.

A message posted on a Facebook page for Drag Queen Story Hour Tennessee, a nonprofit "children's reading program," urges people to copy, paste and send the following message to the state legislature:

"This bill is so broad that it could end up restricting and criminalizing a variety of performances. Drag performances are not dangerous and do not deserve the kind of scrutiny exhibited in this bill. I do not want the government determining what kinds of clothing and costumes people wear based on gender. That is especially dangerous to transgender and non-binary people."

The Hunter Museum of American Art occasionally hosts a cabaret performance, and Executive Director Virginia Anne Sharber said in a text message that while she hasn't yet seen the bill, "I can tell you that we celebrate performers of all kinds as they interpret and interact with our collection. The Cabaret performance we recently hosted was restricted to 18 and older."

She added Hunter officials close the museum an hour early and then ensure all attendees are older than 18.

Wilkinson said he has not heard from promoters for any potential events that might be booked into the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium about whether they might avoid Chattanooga or the state.

"We have faith in our delegation, and we are hopeful that there are not unintended consequences and it doesn't impact that, but I have not heard too much industrywise in that regard," he said.

Wilkinson said he has no indication that "the shows we are planning to do are in jeopardy. We trust our audience to make informed decisions, and we always go above and beyond to give fair warning if a show has adult context.

"I go back to 'The Book of Mormon.' We were very specific in our marketing that it is from (the irreverent and satirical cartoon) 'South Park' guys, and very adult."

"My Fair Lady" was presented as part of the 2022-23 Broadway series, and while Wilkinson said it garnered more positive feedback than any other performance in recent years, Aleta Rannick wrote a letter to the editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Rannick said her family, including a young granddaughter, was "blindsided" by a scene featuring "six to eight men dressed as women dancing to 'I'm Getting Married in the Morning.' What? One man was in a corset, socks and shoes, and a wedding veil only. Another was wearing only a girl's lacy, one-piece lingerie. I was horrified that my little angel was seeing something for the first time that someone that age should never see! It was pornography!

"In my opinion, that scene was not appropriate for anyone. We were blindsided. The costumes and dancer movements during this scene were not appropriate for a family show."

Wilkinson pointed out the bill won't go into effect until mid-summer and he has not heard from any promoters or agents about possibly bypassing Tennessee when booking future shows.

"As an organization, we are monitoring it closely, and we are obviously aware that this is out there and it is presumably going to happen," he said by phone. "We are hopeful that this doesn't impact our business as the largest provider of shows and concerts in town."

According to a story that ran in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in November, Senate Bill 3 would amend and redefine portions of an existing state law that already prohibits minors from being admitted to adult-oriented businesses such as strip clubs.

According to the story, Johnson said in a statement, "I filed this legislation to protect children. There are certain performances, movies and places that are inappropriate for children. Just as current law prohibits strip clubs from admitting children, this legislation would also prohibit sexually suggestive drag shows from being performed on public property, or on any non-age-restricted private property where a minor could be present."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.

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