‘Accidental Activist’: A play about Newt Gingrich and his lesbian sister


Candace Gingrich-Jones poses at her Hyattsville home near a photograph of, from left, her brother, Newt Gingrich; Candace and her wife, playwright Rebecca Gingrich-Jones; and Callista Gingrich. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
March 13, 2012

Amid the struggling days of Newt Gingrich’s campaign, one might expect that the reading of a play performed by his Democrat lesbian activist sister would have a certain kind of goal: Nail in coffin. Harpoon in whale. At the very least, one might expect roly-poly one-liners, cracks about multiple marriages (his), helmet hair (hers), polyamory, anything.

Instead, “Accidental Activist,” which will have a staged reading at Hyattsville’s Busboys and Poets on Wednesday night, presents a nuanced focus on the family — the family in this case being Candace Gingrich-Jones and the much older sibling she refers to as Brother Newt. Those looking for dirt on the former House speaker must appease themselves with learning that Gingrich is a terrible golfer and has set his ringtone to Abba’s “Mamma Mia.”

“I wanted to show people a different perspective,” says Candace’s wife, Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, the playwright who penned “Accidental Activist.” “No matter what view you come in with,” she hopes that the one audience members leave with is “more holistic.”

“I’ve had to deal with the [perception] that my brother and I hate each other,” Candace says, insisting that it isn’t true.

There’s a picture of the four of them — Candace and Rebecca, Newt and Callista — hanging in the Gingrich-Jones home, in fact, taken at the premiere of one of the films produced by Newt and Callista Gingrich’s production company. It’s signed by Newt.

On a recent evening, Candace, 45, and Rebecca, 30, invited a cast and crew of seven to their cozy Hyattsville bungalow. They clustered around bowls of pretzels and animal crackers for the single rehearsal scheduled before Wednesday’s performance.

Candace plays herself, amateur actor Bill Brekke plays her brother, and the other cast members play a parade of characters including Rachel Maddow, Pat Robertson, Gingrich relatives and other assorted real people who have drifted in and out of the siblings’ lives as one has sought his political identity and the other has sought her personal one.

In the play, Candace is developing her first crush at summer camp while Newt is winning his first term in Congress. Newt is declaring his opposition to same-sex marriage while Candace is finding her first girlfriend at rugby practice. Candace’s friends are appalled by her ignorance of her brother’s right-wing stances, telling her that Brother Newt is blazing a path to become speaker of the House.

“That’s crazy,” Candace-the-character responds in the play. “That’s like saying he wants to be president!”

It turns out he did, and he does.

Rebecca wrote “Accidental Activist” in 2010; a version of it premiered then at a Kennedy Center festival — the only other performance of the play to date.

“At that time, I wondered, do people even remember who Newt is?” Rebecca says. But then he announced his presidential candidacy, took South Carolina, hung on, stayed in the news. “Things just gelled.”

The play has been reworked to reflect the 2012 campaign. “I am the tortoise,” Newt-the-character decrees after his Georgia victory, just as Newt-the-candidate did in real life.

“The bottom line is, he is human,” Candace-the-character tells a Huffington Post interviewer, just as she did in real life, expressing sympathy after Newt’s staff resigned in the early days of his campaign.

The sometimes perplexing dissociation between Newt’s private behavior and public stances is exemplified again and again in the play. Newt and Callista skipped Candace and Rebecca’s wedding — they were out of the country — but sent a note of congratulations and told Rebecca she was a good addition to the family. Newt privately agreed to a sit-down chat with Candace about his views on gay rights, but it was a press secretary who phoned to tell her that it wouldn’t be possible.

At times, this careful separation between the personal and the political seems like wishful thinking. The issues in “Accidental Activist” don’t just affect policy — they affect people, and Candace Gingrich-Jones particularly.

(Candace does not think that her brother is aware of the play’s Hyattsville debut or has read the memoir on which portions of it are based. The Gingrich campaign did not return messages attempting to verify this.)

The point she — and the play — seem to be making is that politics is personal. But so is family.

“In a lot of families, there’s that one person who is completely different from everyone else,” Candace says, arguing that her relationship with her brother exemplifies the complicated interactions among members of many families who are bound by blood, but who disagree profoundly with one another’s beliefs.

“Christmas dinner is set every year,” she says. “Except when a member of the family is running for president.”

Candace may not have considered a career in activism were it not for her brother; she’s been with the Human Rights Campaign for more than a decade.

She plans to vote for President Obama.

Accidental Activist

7 p.m. Wednesday at Busboys and Poets, 5331 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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