What might have been the biggest drama of Chicago’s recent Pride Weekend played out at Theater Wit—but not onstage.
When artistic director Jeremy Wechsler canceled an event scheduled by #WalkAway Campaign, a New York-based right-wing political group, a mere day before the event was to happen, he launched a highly politicized reality show in which he became a major player.
It was, well, unwitting. And so histrionic that his nemesis, #WalkAway founder Brandon Straka, found it necessary to post a follow-up video on Facebook apologizing for his own behavior. Not toward Wechsler and Theater Wit, however. Them, he’s threatened to sue.
You can still catch the drama on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
#WalkAway is a mostly online, not-yet- nonprofit entity whose mission is to convince LGBT and other minority-group voters to give up their traditional loyalty to the Democrats. It was founded a little over a year ago by Straka, a hairstylist, actor, gay man, and reformed liberal who catapulted to conservative media fame after his six-minute Facebook video detailing his political conversion was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. It’s been funded by donations (originally on GoFundMe, where it raised $367,000), including a $10,000 contribution by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
#WalkAway recently ventured into live town hall programs held in New York (viewable online) and Los Angeles. In a phone interview last week, Straka said that after those events, #WalkAway was contacted by the Illinois chapter of the LGBT group Log Cabin Republicans, who asked the group to bring a town hall to Chicago for Pride Weekend, then just three weeks away. Straka said Log Cabin Republicans offered to facilitate the event and arranged to rent one of the black-box theaters at Theater Wit, which allows community organizations to use its space for free. It was scheduled for June 29.
After that, Straka said, communication with Log Cabin Republicans broke down; when they didn’t promptly return calls, #WalkAway decided to do the Chicago town hall on its own. Representatives informed Theater Wit of the change, signed a contract, and—since its nonprofit status is not yet official—paid a rental fee. According to #WalkAway executive director Libby Albert, the rental fee was $950 and the contract had no provisions for cancellation except in instances of “natural disaster or an act of God.”
#WalkAway flew its team—Straka, Albert, and others, including its provocative panelists, gay activist Mike Harlow and YouTuber Blaire White—to Chicago. During a June 28 walk-through at the theater, Straka said they warned the assistant manager, Josh Nordmark, that they’d be releasing the event location that day, and that there could be pushback from the community. (#WalkAway’s New York town hall had to be relocated after its original venue, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center there, succumbed to public pressure after receiving a letter of protest signed by 280 people and canceled it.) Straka says the group was assured that Theater Wit would not cancel.
But a few hours later, #WalkAway team member Melissa Robey got a call from Wechsler, who told her that he had, in fact, decided to pull the plug. She and Albert captured the call on a cell-phone video (illegal in Illinois unless both parties to a private conversation agree), and it’s now part of the online drama available on YouTube. As the video rolls, Wechsler can be heard explaining that he’d checked out their panelists and found that “this is a little too close to hate speech for my taste.” When Robey and Albert object, telling him, “You’re shutting down our First Amendment rights to free speech,” Weschler replies, “You don’t have First Amendment rights here at the theater. You can say whatever you want, just not here.”
Straka and Harlow rushed back to the theater, where they confronted Wechsler. They also recorded this scene on a cell phone. It’s a painful interlude in which Wechsler struggles to find the right words, finally concluding, “I guess I’m just not interested in contributing to the political debate in the way that you guys are doing it.” Straka and Harlow object, claiming that they’re being canceled because of misperceptions and lies and that Wechsler hasn’t even bothered to watch the video of their previous town hall to see what it is that he’s canceling. When Straka reveals that he has his lawyer on the phone, it’s Wechsler who does the “walk away.”
There’s more: a subsequent confrontation with Nordmark and a Twitter video, posted by Straka, in which he notes that he’s just filed a police report because a Theater Wit employee grabbed his phone to stop him from recording. Still, Straka told me, it ended well. A new venue turned up—the City Hall, a bar and event space in the West Loop where, he says, about 150 people showed up for an “incredible” event. (An employee from City Hall says the venue doesn’t have a crowd count.) His lawyer, Manny Alicandro, says that it seems like “effective notice” wasn’t given by Theater Wit, but what he’s most interested in is “why the cancellation occurred” and its effect on the reputation and future of Straka’s organization. Straka has filed suit against the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center for its cancellation of the town hall there, charging discrimination and defamation.
Theater Wit, citing the “potential for litigation in this matter,” declined to comment. v