History of "Charlie!"

See also "Writing Words for Music", by Bruce Spang.

Author's History of the Play

On July 7, 1984, three teenagers threw 23-year-old Charlie Howard off of the State Street Bridge in Bangor, Maine.’ The openly gay man, who had asthma and could not swim, died in the Kenduskeag Stream below. Charlie's death sparked a wave of civil rights protests in New England, which set the stage for the larger, more sustained protest that Matthew Shepard’s murder aroused across the country and which led to the Maine Human Rights Act. Charlie's death was also part of the impetus for the formation of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance (now known as EqualityMaine), and the crime – as well as Charlie's life – is memorialized in Bangor every year.

Gathering in memory.
Gathering in memory of Charlie Howard at State Street Bridge, Bangor, Maine.

On the 25th anniversary of Charlie Howard’s death, Tom Wallace, composer and Associate Director of the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus asked Chorus member and poet (now Poet Laureate of Portland, Maine), Bruce Spang, to write a script about Charlie. Bruce took him up on the invitation because, as a young closeted man, Bruce had lived in Bangor in the 1980s; Charlie’s death had always haunted him.

Bruce discovered in his two-years of research for the book a significant fact: Jim Baines, youngest of Charlie’s killers, saw Charlie’s eyes as he was tossing him into the river. Jim said that he could never get Charlie’s eyes out of his head. With that image, Bruce knew that it was possible to write a story about redemption — and about being seen and not seen, a central issue for gay people who often feel invisible. Bruce then discovered that he had once worked as a colleague with the counselor who was Director of the cottage in which Jim Baines spent his rehabilitation: Bruce was intimately familiar with the process of rehabilitation used! Bruce felt he was ready to represent Jim as a main character. Finding the real Charlie Howard took more extensive investigation.

For a year, Bruce tracked down dead-end leads, read about Oscar Wilde and Matthew Shepard, studied the Laramie Project and Gross Indecency as models to frame a story, and examined Benjamin Britten’s work. Still, none of that research made Charlie real for him.

That changed with two fateful eventualities. Bruce found a woman who knew both Charlie and Charlie's mother, and knew them well (and who, incidentally, throws a white rose into the Kenduskeag every year, at the request of Charlie's mother). With that meeting, everything changed, including the story he was writing. The woman introduced him to others who knew Charlie, and with their recorded recollections, Bruce knew Charlie’s story could, for the first time, finally be told.

From courtroom transcripts, news stories, and interviews, and through extensive collaboration with Tom, the composer, Bruce has pieced together an extraordinary story. “The White Rose” not only helps us to imagine Charlie's reality and the man most of us would never know, but also teaches important things about transformation, both of society and of the human heart. Indeed, both Bruce and Tom have been transformed by its writing. For more than two years they have labored over each word so that it comes alive in song. The result is a story that will touch your heart.

Subpages (1): Writing Words for Music