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All aboard the love bus in 'The State of Marriage'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2010 - You've heard of the Love Train, but what about the Marriage Bus?


This vehicle of matrimonial equality took its maiden voyage to Iowa just a few days after the April 2009 legalization of same-sex marriage in the Hawkeye state. "The State of Marriage," a play conceived and directed by Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, chronicles the bus' debut and its subsequent trips.

Co-produced by St. Louis Actors' Studio with additional text and choreography by J.T. Ricroft, "The State of Marriage" has a serious message. But it's designed to not only nudge the mind and tug at the heartstrings, but to tickle the funny bone.

"When you laugh, you soften and you open your heart, and it also provides a kind of emotional release because some of the material is intense," Lipkin said.

Always A Bridesmaid ...

A good portion of the humor is provided by the character described as "bridesmaid drag queen prophet about the civil rights yet to come." Cast as the character is St. Louis drag entertainer Dieta Pepsi, who joked that the role is hardly a stretch for her.

"That's me to a 'T,' always a bridesmaid, never a bride," Dieta laughed, explaining that her heavy schedule of fundraising for causes from the Marriage Bus to HIV to breast cancer prevent her from dating.

Funny scenes from "The State of Marriage" include the "Leviticus Limbo" game show. Host Rob Romans explains to Debbie Deuteronomy and others that correct answers earn contestants the right to feel good about condemning same-sex marriage. Wrong replies result in a trip under the limbo pole "until you are on the ground and unable to harm yourself and others."

Despite the humor, even Dieta Pepsi takes somber tone when talking about the play's significance: "It's all about human rights. And we should have the right to marry whoever we want."

Real-life Stories Onstage

Jan Barrier and Sherie Schild of St. Louis have built a home, helped raise a nephew and doted on grandchildren during their 20 years together. But without the more than 1,000 federal rights that marriage confers, they have suffered numerous incidents of discrimination.

After Schild was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, Barrier's employer, the federal government, only gave Barrier two days off for her partner's double mastectomy. Later, when Schild was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Barrier was demoted after she asked for time off when Schild had chemotherapy.

"A man with a wife who had cancer was moved to the regional office and given a really easy job so he could take care of his wife," Barrier said. "And he could take all the leave he wanted."

Even though the pair had their partnership documents in place, Barrier had to climb through a hospital window to see Schild. When a nurse came in and saw them holding hands, she screamed and had Barrier escorted out of the hospital.

The couple's story plays a big part in "The State of Marriage." Barrier and Schild were two of dozens of people Lipkin interviewed to gather material for the script. Many of her conversations took place aboard the Marriage Bus, on its third trip to Iowa this past March.


One of those was with Colin Murphy and his partner Kurt Ross of Belleville, Ill. As the bus rolled its way to Iowa City, it passed through Bowling Green, Mo., where eight generations of Murphy's ancestors are buried.

"Joan made a reference to my pioneer grandfather who'd fought in the Revolutionary War, and how in my own way I'm fighting for my rights the same way that he did," Murphy said.

What Marriage Means

The dozens of marriages that have resulted from the four Marriage Bus trips that have taken place so far mean nothing under Missouri or Illinois law. But to the couples and to others, the legal document has great significance.

"It's hard to put into words, but it is a sense that our relationship is validated and is being recognized even if it's just in seven states," Murphy said.


Married during the first trip to Iowa, Barrier and Schild feel their legal union makes a statement to others. Barrier, who calls herself a "good American" noted that supporting same-sex marriage is not a liberal stance but a conservative value that speaks to not only the benefits but also the responsibilities of being in a relationship.

"It's a real pleasure to stand up in the community as a married person and be a role model for younger people," Barrier said.

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis has been a key figure in the Marriage Bus trips and will be a character in the play. While she's been joining same-sex couples together in commitment ceremonies for 30 years, Talve was surprised by the powerful impact of signing the first such marriage license.

"Every time we do a legal wedding, it pushes the world a little more open to embracing of all families," Talve said. "And every time the story is told, is also changes the world a little."

Nancy Fowler Larson covers theater, among other things, for the Beacon.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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