The hot-button titles in the school repertory
Here’s a list of plays and musicals that have been the subjects of community challenges or official prior restraint actions in American high schools and middle schools (and in some rare instances, colleges) in recent years.
Thespians at Portage (Indiana) High School scotched an attempt in November, 2015 by school administrators to bowdlerize references to smoking, drugs, alcohol, and sex from their production of The Bad Seed, a 1954 play about a sociopathic child by Maxwell Anderson. The students took their concerns to the district Board of Education, pointing out that editing the play without permission would be a violation of copyright law and a breach of their contract with the play publisher. After investigating, Superintendent Richard Weigel directed the production would go forward without censorship. “From my perspective, the purpose of theatre is to provide insights into characters that reflect different ways of thinking,” Weigel said. “Theatre provides an opportunity for our students to reflect on those characters, not become those characters.”
Spamalot, by Eric Idle and John du Prez, based on a screenplay by Monty Python. In July 2014, the drama director at South Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Area Junior/Senior High School went public regarding the cancellation of a planned production of Spamalot, saying that the school’s principal had nixed it due to gay content. The school administration challenged her, but after internal emails were revealed in August 2014 under Right-to-Know laws, it was clear that “homosexual themes” were the cause. Four weeks later, the drama director was fired.
Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. In March 2014 in Plaistow, New Hampshire, the Timberlane Area School District superintendent canceled a production of Sweeney Todd. After efforts by students and parents, and broad support at a school meeting called to discuss the issue, the show was restored and rescheduled for production in May 2015.
The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project. Multiple challenges and cancellations, most recently in June 2013 in Ottumwa, Iowa. Ottumwa High School’s planned production of The Laramie Project was canceled by the principal, who said “the play is too adult for a high school production but it does preach a great message.” It was subsequently produced by the students at a venue off school grounds.
In June 2013, the superintendent of schools in Everett, Massachusetts eliminated all academic drama programs at the school, citing content in student written plays presented earlier in the year. His objections included references to sex and drinking, and one actor dropping his pants to reveal underwear.
Rent, book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Multiple cancellations, most recently in November 2013, when the principal of Trumbull High School in Trumbull, Connecticut canceled a planned spring 2014 production. After a concerted campaign by students and parents, the musical was restored and went on as scheduled. Productions of Rent were canceled in Newport Beach, California; Bridgeport, West Virginia; Red Wing, Minnesota; suburban Dallas, and other locations in 2008-09. Administrators generally cited language and what they consider to be inappropriately mature content. In the California case, it was widely reported that the principal at Corona Del Mar High School canceled the production because of the musical’s treatment of “prostitution and homosexuality.”
In December 2012, at Loveland (Ohio) High School, a drama director was fired subsequent to her production of Legally Blonde, a musical the school had approved. The administration ultimately said the production was too racy.
In February 2011, the Waterbury (Connecticut) Arts Magnet High School’s production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was canceled while in rehearsals due to the play’s repeated use of a racial epithet. After effective student advocacy and a pledge from Yale Repertory Theatre to run educational programs at the school to put the play and its language in context, the play was restored and produced with a slight delay in schedule.
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, by Christopher Durang. In November, 2008, Southeast Missouri State University offered ticket refunds to any audience members who were offended by the Durang play—and more significantly, pledged to review its policies on the selection of plays for season subscriptions—after a wealthy donor objected volubly that the satire “ridicule[d] and scorn[ed] the Christian religion.” As it happens, the school’s theatre is named after the complainant, and her letter to the president of the university was published as an op-ed piece in the local paper, which is owned by her family.
The Tender Yellow Sky, by Tim Milhorn. Milhorn, a veteran teacher at Orland (California) High School who has frequently written plays for production by his students, was six weeks into rehearsals of this new title in the fall of 2008 when the school district superintendent announced the show was canceled. School officials said they were concerned that the play’s exploration of teenage suicide might cause some students to consider killing themselves.
Higher Ground, a play about bullying written by Portland, Oregon drama teacher Jennie Brown for her students at Sherwood Middle School, was canceled three days before the scheduled performance in February 2008. School officials said the script’s treatment of bullying, racism, homophobia, and intimidation was too mature for the students. Ultimately the play was performed at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and the school’s principal and district superintendent told the school board they were sorry for the way they had handled the matter.
Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward, at South Walton High School in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, canceled by the county board of education after community complaints that the play might “encourage exploration of witchcraft and the occult” and undermine students’ commitments to monogamous relationships. The production was moved off campus to nearby Seaside Repertory Theatre.
Catcalls, a short play by Peter Keahey, a student at Yellow Springs (Ohio) High School. When administrators demanded changes in some of the dialogue a few hours before a scheduled February, 2008 performance, Keahey refused, and the cast and crew read a letter denouncing censorship to the audience instead of performing the play. Catcalls was later performed at a theatre space on the campus of Antioch College.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Lakota East High School in suburban Cincinnati canceled a November, 2007 production of the play on the basis of an NAACP complaint that the mystery had once had a racially insensitive title. (First called Ten Little Indians in the United States, the play was based on a novel that was published in England under a title that substituted a racial epithet for “Indians.”) Two days later, the principal’s decision was reversed by the school board and the production went on.
Voices in Conflict, a piece adapted from the writings of American veterans of the Iraq War by students at Wilton (Connecticut) High School. A scheduled April 2007 performance was canceled by the school’s principal, who said the script did not present a “balanced view of the war.” Wilton theatre teacher Bonnie Dickinson was invited to bring her students to perform the piece at two Manhattan theatres, The Culture Project and the Public Theatre, the following June.
The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler. Three students were suspended from John Jay High School in Cross River, New York after reading a selection of the play during a March, 2007 open mic session at the school. The suspension was later overturned after the playwright personally intervened.
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, and Grease, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. A production of the Miller play scheduled for Fulton (Missouri) High School in the spring of 2006 was pre-emptively canceled by the school’s principal after community complaints about “immoral behavior” in an earlier production of the retro musical. In a statement, the principal said he had canceled The Crucible “to avoid additional scrutiny that had already occurred as a result of the fall production of Grease.”
Bang Bang You’re Dead, by William Mastrosimone. “Too violent,” according to East Guernsey, Ohio school officials in September, 2005.
Godspell, by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. “A breach of church-state separation,” said the same administrators. The two teachers involved in the drama program at East Guernsey’s Buckeye Trail High School resigned their unpaid positions as drama club advisors.