Monday, March 28, 2011

Theatre is Dangerous to Young Minds

First, congrats to the selects for the 15th Annual PlayGround Festival.

This is My Body by Daniel Heath
Calling the Kettle by Brady Lea, music by Christopher Winslow
Ecce Homo by Jonathan Luskin
Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero by Katie May
See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. by Evelyn Jean Pine
Escapades by Mandy Hodge Rizvi
Frigidare by Arisa White

I missed two evenings this year, so I'm looking forward to discovering those plays at the festival. And looking forward to seeing what directors do with the work I did have the pleasure of taking in on the evening I did go. (For the record, I made 4 of 6.)

Kudos to all.

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Several weeks ago an article was posted on this blog about Aaron Loeb’s “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party.” Apparently, Arizona’s “Goldwater Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste” feel that the $2351 the Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe has received for supporting the production of the play is a waste. Why? The article quotes the organization: ““Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party”… features a teacher in Honest Abe’s hometown who encourages students to debate the sexuality of the “Great Emancipator.” That’s fine for the several thousand folks who pay to see a Stray Cat show each year. For the millions of Arizona taxpayers who are offended by the organization’s programs, however, being forced to support something that violates their sensibilities or morals is an insult."

The end of that last sentence came to mind when I learned last week that Fremont school trustees had rejected the inclusion of “Angels In America, Part One” in the 12th Grade AP supplemental reading list.

A few years ago, “Bastard Out Of Carolina” was rejected by the same organization.

Among the reasons for the rejection of Kushner’s play are (apparently):
• the play is thought to make fun of some people’s belief systems
• the play makes some people feel their belief system is not being tolerated
• the play might make some students uncomfortable
• teaching the play might be disparaging to an ethnic race or a specific organization or a religious belief
• the play uses the “F word” and “Yiddish profanities”
• it stereotypes religious and political beliefs
• it doesn’t have a hook to “shine through the toilet talk”
• it’s divisive in a school district that’s worked hard for unity
• tolerance in the play is “limited to sexual activity”
• the play offers no tolerance for a diversity of ideas and thought

Looking at this list, culled from the news article cut and pasted below, you’d think the play is an anti-religious, profanity laced, ethnically divisive, politically motivated orgy of sorts.

I’ll have to admit, this is not how I remember the play. Yes, it’s been 10 years since I read it, but what I recall is a play that is a big and ambitious; a play where characters from a variety of backgrounds struggle with the truth of “who they are” versus what history and the world-at-large asks them to be. What we see are the consequences visited upon those who are intolerant to their inner selves by conforming to the outside world’s needs. After a lifetime of persecuting others, Roy Cohn cannot admit his own homosexuality. Joe struggles throughout with figuring out how his religious heritage and his sexuality fit together (or don’t). Joe’s wife Harper sinks into mental illness as a way of dealing with Joe’s sexuality and the shattering of her idea what she thought her marriage was.

I'm pretty sure that the play has an angel and ghosts and which seems to suggest there is a God and a heaven and that we all have souls - pretty standard Judeo-Christian stuff here.

I think you’d have to intentionally misread the play to think that it’s a piece promoting intolerance versus a piece about intolerance; that it makes fun of belief systems versus questioning the beliefs that the characters have been taught to hold dear at all costs; that it says “indiscriminate sex is okay” versus suggesting that hiding your sexuality (from others and yourself) can be deadly (to others and yourself).

It made me wonder if the people passing judgment on the Advanced Placement reading list could actually pass an Advanced Placement class. After all, comprehension and the ability to analyze and discuss ideas are among the criteria I recall being tested on when I took the AP exams before college.

To some of the other charges, well, I know there was profanity, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing a 17-year old in Fremont hasn’t heard before. Unless they live in some bubble where radio, TV, internet and contact with other people is prohibited – which I suppose isn’t entirely impossible. Of course, there is that charge about “Yiddish profanities”. Perhaps the word “schmuck” is used? I’m at a disadvantage here because, 1) It’s been a long time since I read it and 2) I don’t have Kindle to download the portion of the play that Bruce (see article below) apparently was able to get on his e-reader. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that “schmuck” isn’t one of the 7 words the FCC bans from TV, so how profane could it be?

I’ll also agree that the play will make some students uncomfortable. Particularly the ones who live in the aforementioned bubble where radio, TV, internet and contact with other people is prohibited. But I’d like to add that Chemistry 101 made me very uncomfortable. While no-one banned it, it turned out, like many AP classes, to be elective. I dropped it after a week.

On the other hand, as a parent, I know what it’s like to struggle with the desire to protect a child from harmful or even challenging material. As my kid is 3 and a half, that means banning Sponge Bob from the house. In fact, all commercial television is off-limits. This might make me a prude. But earlier in his life, when we were given Teletubbies videos, I hid them in a sock drawer.

However, I do hope that when my kid is 17, he’s so into reading that it doesn’t really matter what school board thinks about “Angels In America” or “Huckleberry Finn” or “Catcher in the Rye” – or whatever it is that’s deemed “divisive” and
“intolerant” and “disparaging.”

If I’m really lucky, my kid will be so damn rebellious that when the school board does reject something, he’ll makes a point of reading it. In front of the school.

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I read this first in the Contra Costa Times.


FREMONT -- School trustees are embroiled in another controversy over censorship and tolerance after they rejected the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America Part One" for the 12th-grade Advanced Placement supplemental reading list.

Five other books were approved on a 3-2 vote late Wednesday night, after board President Bryan Gebhardt and trustee Ivy Wu refused to support any materials until the selection process is improved.

In a separate vote, "Angels in America" was rejected 4-1. Trustee Lara York voted in favor of the play, about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York, but trustees Larry Sweeney and Lily Mei said it is unsuitable for high school students. The board rejected Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina" in 2009 and again last year for the same reason.

Sweeney denied that the play is being banned or censored, saying the question is whether it should be required reading.

"If you, as a parent, want to take your child to see the play or you want to see the play or anything, I have absolutely no problem with that at all," he said. "But I think when we're requiring reading and there's a group of people who feel that they are being targeted -- we've heard people talk tonight about tolerance and acceptance -- and there's a group of people who feel very much that their belief system is not being tolerated, and in fact is being made fun of."

Mei also said she doesn't want students to feel uncomfortable with a required textbook.

"I would not recommend any book that's disparaging to any ethnic race or any specific organizations or religious beliefs," she said.

York said that while she is concerned that people in the community feel attacked by the play, the AP class is there for students to challenge themselves.

"I don't see a controversy of having students who may have different beliefs than what's being brought up in this book, or any other book that they might be reading in our classes, and for them to be led in a rich dialogue by our highly qualified teachers to flesh out what their position is," she said.

It's not the first time Fremont trustees have found themselves accused of censorship.

In 2009, Mei, Sweeney and Wu said the book "Bastard Out of Carolina," which tells the story of a girl beaten and raped by her stepfather and includes scenes of masturbation, was inappropriate for high school students. The following year, York also opposed it, saying the book should not have been brought back before the board so quickly.

Before a book is recommended to the school board, it must be approved by the English Curriculum Committee, a group consisting of the district's English department heads, and then by the Secondary Schools' Textbook Adoption Committee, made up of teachers, administrators, parents and a school board member.

Superintendent Jim Morris said district officials are going to look at what other schools are doing and bring back some revisions to the board.

"We understand that we have a process in place that is a less than perfect process, and I think this example brings to light some of the improvements that we need to make," he said. "The current process is not only cumbersome, but I'm not sure that it really gives us a satisfactory result."

"Angels in America" is a seven-hour play in two parts by Tony Kushner. It revolves around two New York couples and their friends and family who deal with disease and death during the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s.

The first part, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," received its world premiere in May 1991 in a production by the Eureka Theatre Co. in San Francisco. The play debuted on Broadway in 1993 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year.

HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play in 2003, adapted by Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols and with a cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. It won five Golden Globe Awards and 11 Emmy Awards.
The book has been in use by the College Board since 2009 and appears on the AP test as a supplemental reading option.

Four years ago, Encinal High School in Alameda became the second high school in the state to stage a production of "Angels in America." Gene Kahane, the English teacher who directed the play, said they performed a 3 1/2-hour version, having edited out some of the language and nude scenes, and it went off without a hitch.

"We didn't have a single complaint," he said. "People stayed to the end; there was a standing ovation every night; people were in tears every night. They recognized that there was beauty in the story and there was truth."

Kahane, who has taught for 28 years, including 15 at Encinal, said he wouldn't hesitate to study the play in class. "You don't win the Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize, as this has done, without having some significance," he said.
"Seniors in high school, and especially AP seniors -- they not only need this kind of stuff to look at, but they want it, too. They don't want anything watered down."
Anthony Newfield, an actor who has performed on stage, film and television, urged the board to adopt the play as part of the curriculum.

"I saw 'Angels in America' in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre in its first-ever production," he said. "It was astonishing. I had not seen anything like it before or since. It deals with issues in America, how we live as Americans, who we are as Americans. It deals with the diversity of America, with Mormons, Jews, Christians, blacks, whites, straights, and yes, even gays."

Laura Saponara, communications director of the ACLU of Northern California and a graduate of Fremont schools, also encouraged the board to approve the play.

"Intellectual freedom means access to information and ideas, and the right of students as well as adults to entertain a full range of diverse ideas," she said. "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended precisely for this kind of conversation. It was intended to protect against the tendency to guard against ideas and characters that are perceived to be so dangerous that they must be somehow barred or made off-limits to learners," she said.

Others, though, were offended by the play and said it is inappropriate for high-schoolers, even those in an honors class.

The Rev. Bruce Green of Centerville Presbyterian Church, said a fellow member of the Afghan Coalition board complained about the play, and Green said he downloaded a sample on Kindle to see what the fuss was about.

"Just from the sample, I couldn't believe that such a profane and obscene book was being considered as a high school textbook," he said. "The little bit I read of this book, it was kind of like I was being offered a filthy cup covered with the F-word and even introducing me to new Yiddish profanities. I was looking for the hook, something that would shine through the toilet talk and engage me to pay the $8 and download the whole book. Instead, the filthy cup was filled with sour milk. It looked bad and smelled worse to me."

Carol Zilli, a teacher for more than 30 years, said the play is "sordid curriculum" that stereotypes religious and political groups.

"Divisive is the primary word that comes to my mind, divisive in a school district that has worked hard for unity," she said. "I find that going backwards. Tolerance (in the play) is limited to sexual activity. It is not evidenced in this book that there's tolerance for diversity of ideas and thought, and you can't have a diverse culture without acceptance of diversity of thought and religious beliefs."

Ann Crosbie, parent of two children who will be attending Washington High, said she wrestled with the issue but ultimately decided to support adopting the play.
"Some parents feel that their 17-year-old child shouldn't be exposed to inappropriate language, but this isn't the first book approved for AP English with dirty words," she said. "Is this book just smut? Historically, they haven't awarded Pulitzer Prizes to smut."

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