Perspective: School theater is the latest battleground for America’s culture war

Perspective: School theater is the latest battleground for America’s culture war

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
By Kerri Glynn

The culture is being fought not only in school libraries but also on the school stage.

Theater programs are the latest battleground, with a recent New York Times article decrying not only the ban on books and arguments about the way race and sexuality are taught but also the restrictions on what plays can be produced.

The most popular high school performance in America, “The Addams Family,” has been barred from many schools for its “dark themes.” Musical staples such as “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease” have also been challenged for showcasing “immoral behavior” like smoking, mooning and the possibility of pregnancy.

“Legally Blonde” is “too racy.” “James and the Giant Peach” calls for actors to play both male and female roles. A local production of “9 to 5” was almost shut down by a parental complaint that a dance was “too sexy.” 

Drag performances have recently been restricted in Tennessee, but I remember the Massapequa football team dressing up as cheerleaders with “balloon boobs” back in 1964. And in the 34 years I taught in Smithtown, every Halloween would bring athletes dressed as pregnant nuns and — you guessed it — cheerleaders.

Although “Romeo and Juliet” is a ninth-grade classic in schools across America, a recent production was considered too controversial and replaced by “SpongeBob The Musical.” I pity the student actors who lose the opportunity to be challenged by Shakespeare’s language and tragic themes and instead play cartoon characters. 

“The Crucible” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” have long been part of our school curricula. Now they also face cancellation — “The Crucible” for dealing with adultery and witchcraft, “Mockingbird” for its incest, rape and racism. Both plays were lauded in recent Broadway productions, but what is their future in America’s high school auditoriums?

Students deserve to read and experience challenging material, not just benign and family-friendly fun. A high school theater program should be an open and creative space where students can make friends, be accepted for who they are and have a platform to explore other points of view. My theater kids included AP and special ed students, closeted gays and star athletes.

“Drama teachers are on the firing line, and I marvel at their resilience and their commitment,” said Jeffrey Sanzel, the artistic director of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. “The opportunities and guidance they provide are immeasurable. I cannot fathom how they face new challenges every time they want to put up a production,” he added. Sadly true. 

A drama teacher in Pennsylvania was fired for directing the Monty Python spoof “Spamalot” because the play contained “gay content.” Imagine the terrible message that sent to LGBTQ students.

I was a lucky one: A drama teacher with a four-year acting class and an administration that allowed me to choose my own shows: “A Chorus Line,” “Company,” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” We also performed assembly programs that included material about alcoholism, drug addiction, teen suicide, bulimia, domestic abuse, drunk driving, safe sex and AIDS.

We have to respect and honor the inner life of teenagers and give them a chance to try on other lives in the characters they play. Just this summer, a former student who graduated over 25 years ago posted this note on Facebook.

“My high school acting experience made a profound impact on my life. The only time I felt truly alive was on that stage. It was the escape I needed, and the places I explored showed me how much more to life there truly was. Forever grateful.”

Somewhere in America, the musical “Shakespeare in Love” was rejected by the school administration because the characters had to cross-dress — boys playing the roles of Juliet and the Nurse. Did they miss the authenticity? In Shakespeare’s time, all female roles were performed by men. I shudder to think what the world would have lost if he had lost this culture war, too.

Kerri Glynn is a retired English teacher who has lived in Setauket with her husband Tim for many years. Today she is a writer and tutor as well as the director of education for the Frank Melville Memorial Park.