James O'Keefe's Latest Act: Musical Theater for “Canceled Artists”
O-Oklahoma where the cast is circling the drain
Musical theater fans rejoice: James O’Keefe, the right-wing activist behind Project Veritas, is starring in a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! directed by an Amherst theater kid-turned-MAGA congressional candidate in Florida and cast entirely with “canceled artists.”
It would be reasonable to have forgotten about O’Keefe, who spent his 15 minutes of fame a few years ago, when he was involved in a more surreptitious kind of theater — staging “undercover” stings to “catch” usually left-leaning service groups supposedly doing illegal or offensive things. “Stings” such as O’Keefe’s failed attempt to lure a CNN correspondent onto a boat with hidden cameras where, according to the executive director of Project Veritas , O’Keefe planned to record a “bizarre sexual conversation” with the intent to embarrass both her and CNN. O’Keefe also infamously produced a heavily edited video about ACORN which ended up costing him a $100,000 in a settlement with the video’s target (the settlement also included an apology in which O’Keefe expressed sorrow for “any pain suffered”). And then there’s the stunt that got him arrested for entering a sitting senator’s office under false pretenses (to which he later pleaded guilty).
Another one of his failed projects helped win The Washington Post a Pulitzer, after reporters figured out that stories a woman affiliated with O’Keefe’s Project Veritas fed them had been faked as part of an attempt to trick the paper into publishing misinformation. The fabricated tale seemed to suggest that then-candidate Roy Moore had impregnated a woman when she was a teenager (though Moore had lots of other issues involving teenagers, this particular incident wasn’t one of them). It appears Project Veritas had been hoping the Post would publish it and thereby out themselves as biased liberal shills; they found other ways to do that.
But from Aug. 19 to Sept. 5, O’Keefe will be playing a different character: the farm boy Curly in this production of Oklahoma! Here is the trailer. Here is a picture of O’Keefe riding a white horse behind the rest of the cast on the actual farm where it is set. In the play, O’Keefe’s character is the central boy hero, whose hero’s journey consists of asking this girl Laurey to a dance, only to lose out to another guy named Jud, whom Curly later cancels by killing with a knife. But unlike the witch-hunting media of today, he gets due process — by which I mean the guests at his wedding (to Laurey) hold a makeshift trial and find him not guilty.
If you are skeptical of this ordeal, perhaps due to O’Keefe’s past credits, that is fair; we were also, which is why we bought a $49 ticket to prove that at least the online box office is honest about charging our credit card. In the event that this performance is an elaborate con spanning several websites, social media accounts, and the high-production-value trailer linked above, it will at least be one we can challenge in Virginia small claims court. For his part, O’Keefe said the production is not only real, but one he actively auditioned to join — on tape, singing several bars of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” (he declined to provide Gawker with a copy of the video).
This was not entirely out of character for the performance artist; O’Keefe told us he “started in musical theatre in high school” and played “the role of Bobby Child in George Gershwin’s ‘Crazy for You.’” He met the director through his friend and fellow castmate, Ariana Dewing — whose experience with cancellation may have something to do with this part of her Instagram bio: “🇺🇸@turningpointusa @prageru 👼#prolife” — while filming an “original Project Veritas music video.” It’s not in the interest of this article to give the video more views, so we’ll say only that it opens on the following: O’Keefe emerging from a smoke machine cloud, twirling towards the camera to reveal aviators and a leather jacket, strutting through a room of men in fake Twitter T-shirts, ripping off his jacket, moonwalking, and picking up a very small boom box.
The production, which will run on Mount Rouge Farm in Roseland, Virginia, is an “immersive theater experience” from another “canceled” performer: Brian Clowdus. Theater heads from the metro-Atlanta area might recognize his name, or anyone who read this viral Twitter thread after the Jan. 6 riots. Clowdus is the paradigmatic culture war martyr — a figure who at one point held neutral-to-nonexistent political stances, acquired a modest amount of power, watched as that authority was challenged by accusations of misconduct, and pivoted hard to the right. Or as he put it in an email:
When you have been canceled you have 2 options, beg for forgivenss [sic] and dissapear [sic] or use it as an opportunity to become more vocal...If you are conservative in theatre you are often forced to be silent... I wanted to show people they could be vocal if they wanted to be.
The Amherst grad — whom an ex-classmate described as “a typical theater kid...no sign of right-wing stuff whatsoever” — moved to Georgia after college and founded a theater in Atlanta called Serenbe Playhouse. As a director, the classmate said, Clowdus was known for “immersive experiences” where he would pull off outrageous, but often fairly cool stunts. When he put on a version of “Titanic,” for example, he set it at a lake where a giant ship seemed to sink every night. In 2016, during a production of Miss Saigon, he had one actress fly in on an actual helicopter. The New York Times wrote about it. TIME covered the playhouse. In 2018, Playbill listed it in its top 20 theaters in the country. But the following year, according to the classmate and contemporaneous reports, Clowdus left the playhouse abruptly.
His reasons for leaving weren’t entirely clear at the time — he said he wanted to focus on his new project “Brian Clowdus Experiences.” But he chose good timing. A year later, an outpouring on social media lobbed multiple accusations of racism and harassment against Serenbe staff, including Clowdus. The allegations spanned from randomly dressing Black characters as slaves, to speaking in a “Deep South Negro dialect” as a bit, to adding extra uses of the N-word to a production of “Ragtime.” In response, the playhouse let its entire staff go and suspended operations. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the fallout in detail last June.
Within a month of the closure — which took place during the 2020 protests — Clowdus took a sharp political turn: he started retweeting right-wing figures and boosting Donald Trump on social media. He moved to Florida — a relocation he attributed to its status as a swing state, though he’d come from the critical swing state of Georgia: (“Also,” he added, “being able to say @GovRonDeSantis is my governor is pretty epic folks!”). Within a matter of days, as the Twitter thread details well, Clowdus had signed up to volunteer for Trump; tagged Candace Owens in a post about her book; started hitting Trump rallies and recording from conspicuously close seats. His social media boosting was well-received by MAGA types; last fall, he claimed his Trump videos had been viewed “five million times.” That GOP clout introduced him (online and in real life) to some classic far-right characters: Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, Kirstie Alley, and on Jan. 4, the “Q Shaman.”
In the months since Jan. 6, Clowdus has found a way to merge his passions for theater and politics. In May, he declared his candidacy for Florida’s House District 6 on a platform he described as “God, Guns, Low Taxes, and FREEDOM” (emphasis his). At the same time, he has continued to put on “experiences” and theater through a new production company called GOProductions, which he told Gawker in a statement, is “targeted at conservative poltiical [sic] events, basically creating immersive entertainment for political events.”
The Oklahoma! production is not directly related to GOProductions, Clowdus said. It got underway at least a year before that, simply because it’s one of his favorites: “It's about freedom chasing pioneers doing everything in their power to make their new territory a state!” The cast had initially prepared to perform last summer, but held off due to the pandemic. That they all happened to be “canceled artists,” Clowdus wrote, came about “organically” — his own time in the hot seat made him “a magnet” for others in cancile. “The story of OKLAHOMA became a mirror to real life,” he said.
It’s not immediately obvious why the rest of the cast considers themselves canceled; most aren’t especially well-known. One of them worked at Serenbe Playhouse with Clowdus, and was accused of making “blatantly racist jokes” during a production of A Christmas Carol, according to OnStage Blog; others are Turning Point USA recruits or affiliated with groups like PragerU and BlexitAmerica. We asked the rest of Clowdus’ cast and crew if they believed they had been “canceled.” Six responded. The Assistant Director and Musical Director told us they had never been canceled, as did the actress playing Aunt Eller. One actor, who has trained for the Olympics in skeleton, said he lost sponsors for his conservative beliefs. Here’s what two cast members said:
Ariana Dewing (Laurey): I wouldn’t say “Brian is billing this as a production of canceled artists” but instead that we have all happened to be canceled artists before going into this production and he happened to look past that and hire us. Yes, I was canceled in the summer of 2020 when the my students of many years and multiple communities in Southern California, whom I mentored deemed me “racist, unsafe, openly dangerous etc.” in response to me simply wearing a shirt that stated “support the police.” In response to me wearing and posting a photo of me supporting law enforcement I had instructors reach out to the studio via social media telling the director to fire me for my “outdated beliefs” and “dangerous ideas.”
Eric Heister (Ike): [Brian and I] met through mutual friends, as a set designer for Hollywood, he asked me to join Oklahoma! I did audition for [the role] and sang ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ in a laundry room somewhere in America as [I] live in my pink RV full-time... My last project was spitting on Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood in ‘The Trust’ movie.... I’m not a canceled person, I’ve always been known to be an open-minded Patriot-type person and only care about working with open-minded people, I don’t want to hear about your politics. I do know there is a conservative explosion happening and I want to ride that wave.
There are two children in the production, whom Gawker did not contact. Asked whether they had been canceled, Clowdus said: “Not that I’m aware of.” In any case, the cast and crew is rehearsing six days a week to put on this show, which opens on Aug. 19. Somehow, Clowdus is doing this while running for a Florida state congressional seat, an achievement he ascribed to a robust self-care routine (praying, meditating, eating well, not drinking alcohol, “mak[ing] the gym a priority,” and calling his mother. “You have to take care of your mind, your body and your soul or you burn out!” he wrote).
But if the stylings of Rodgers and Hammerstein don’t do it for you, Clowdus has another act scheduled right after — an October series called “Salem.” It’s an interactive witch hunt.
Update: A paragraph in this story has been updated with additional details which elucidate and expand on background information pertaining to Project Veritas and James O’Keefe’s ‘sting’ history.