Carolina Performing Arts began its series of Gender Project performances with a two-night presentation of the British troupe DV8 Physical Theatre in UNC’s Memorial Hall on October 9 and 10th. By early morning of the 10th word-of-mouth was blazing around the internet, and the hall was packed for the second evening.

The Gender Project at UNC-CH is the 2008-2009 equivalent of last year’s campus-wide exploration of the death penalty through the university’s Creative Campus initiative. If anything, this year’s programming will be even more provocative than last year’s, given the passionate feelings aroused by gender issues, and judging by DV8’s To Be Straight With You. Also falling into CPA’s “Experimental” category, To Be Straight With You nearly defies other categorization. Incorporating music, dance, dramatic action, spoken word, projected text and imagery, and carried out with cinematic rhythm in a brilliantly designed set, the piece almost demands a new descriptive word — perhaps ‘omniperformance.” It is art but not fiction: all the text in this work comes from interview material. Choreographer Bill T. Jones is attempting similar work, but where Jones seems to have backed into the multi-media aspects and still handles them a little awkwardly, DV8 was bred and born in the compu-media electronic briarpatch.

Also political art to the nth degree, To Be Straight With You is a harrowing examination of the hatred of homosexuality and the violence — legal and extra-legal — perpetrated around the world against homosexuals, and the relation of that violence to religious beliefs. Perfectly timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the young man who was kidnapped, pistol-whipped, tied to a freezing Wyoming fence post and left to die on October 12, 1998, because he was gay, this performance showed that little, if any, improvement in humanity has occurred in the intervening decade. The death penalty is still the legally-mandated response to the “crime” of homosexuality in many countries. Fathers still stab their sons — better a dead Muslim than a live gay man. Men still rape lesbians with beer bottles. They still die from it. Religious leaders still preach that same-sex loving is sinful, and incite their followers to violence against those lovers. Reason still fails, and the suffering still goes on.

Political art often cannot change audience perceptions or beliefs. It is sometimes like Nancy Pelosi misusing the Speaker’s post at a delicate moment, and sending opponents back behind their fortifications, just when they had inched toward a détente. To Be Straight With You is different in this respect. It is hard to evaluate this from my position, but I think this performance must have opened, and perhaps changed, some minds. Its own position was unambiguous, but its tone would not have been off-putting to anyone more thoughtful than the governor of Alaska. But its real power lay in the totality of the artistic effort and the resulting experience. Facts, stories, feelings — all flooded the viewer in great waves, entering every pore of consciousness through the stupendous performers’ powerful dancing and theatrical movement. The information was horrible; the encompassing art was so wonderful that instead of provoking despair, the performance instilled strength in the viewer.

The world looks different today to some hundreds of people who know and understand more than they did yesterday. There is no higher praise to be offered to a university arts program.