PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The Seacoast Repertory Theatre has always been a respite for Ben Hart and Brandon James.
Beginning their theater journey as kids in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the pair worked multiple jobs at “The Rep” over the years. Now, they’re co-directors.
“Oh, it was the coolest place,” Hart said.
Once COVID set in in the spring of 2020, The Rep kept performing live streaming shows in an empty theatre.
One of their first COVID productions was “Honey Punch & Pals.” The show features Honey Punch — dressed like a stereotypical 50s TV homemaker — accompanied by several puppet characters. During the performances, streamed on YouTube, Honey Punch reads stories and sings songs to the puppets and audience.
“It is for everyone,” James said. “It really is for everyone. It is for kids. It is family-friendly. It’s silly. It’s fun. It’s puppets.”
The only discernable difference between “Honey Punch & Pals” and an average production at another local theater: Honey Punch is in drag.
That distinction was all it took for a hate group — recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League — to march across the Memorial Bridge from Kittery, Maine to Bow Street in broad daylight on Dec. 18, 2021.
The Rep sits a few dozen feet from some of the city’s most popular restaurants on the waterfront.
The protesting group, a regional chapter of the Nationalist Social Club (NSC-131), was filmed — by themselves and by James — carrying a sign reading, “Drag queens are pedophiles.”
James filmed the men, all dressed in black with black masks covering their faces, as he walked into work for the day.
As he walked past, one man yelled, “[Expletive] around and find out!” At least three men then gave a Nazi salute into the air.
Kathleen Cavalaro used to help run the theatre and started making videos about the hate group. She said because northern New England can appear to have little diversity, it is even more important to stand up to these groups.
“The thing about New Hampshire and Maine: We are the top-three whitest states in the country,” Cavalaro said. (Depending on how the U.S. Census data is rounded, New Hampshire is tied as the third-whitest state. Maine is tied with Vermont for the whitest.)
“Because of that, there are white people everywhere saying, ‘No, no, racism doesn’t exist. It’s not here. Everything is good. Because, if we don’t see it or experience it, it just doesn’t exist to us.’ So, because of that, we’ve been gaslighting marginalized people over and over again by telling them it doesn’t exist, that it’s in their heads, that they’re just seeking attention.”
Back at The Rep, the directors recounted how they had faced actions of hate in the past. When friends alerted them of a group outside their business, Hart thought he would come upon a religiously conservative family.
“What we weren’t expecting was a militant line of aggression,” he said.
“I stood inside our lobby in our theater and watched these men hurling hate outside the theater,” James said. “And I had to ask myself and look inside: ‘What are we going to do? What are we, as humans, going to do? What are we, as an organization, going to do?’ The answer is not [to] stay silent. We’re not going to close up our shutters, and we’re not going to roll over and let these men repeat history.”
The history to which James referred was that of Nazi Germany. He pondered about what he would have done had he stood in Berlin in the 1930s and watched members of the Nazi Party march by.
And, so, Honey Punch is set to carry on, despite James saying the actor who plays the character has received death threats since the incident.
Season three of “Honey Punch & Pals” is scheduled to premiere in front of a small live audience and stream online Saturday.
Since word spread of the hate group’s protest, the directors said the nonprofit theatre had received tens of thousands of dollars in donations, as well as messages of support from around the world.
Most importantly, the directors said, Portsmouth remains a loving, welcoming city, and their neighbors have their backs.