by Michael Bowen
A controversial play about the murder of a gay man, scheduled for a student production at Lewis and Clark High School this month, was cancelled last week by the school's principal.
After a week of rehearsals had been completed, Principal John Swett ruled that "the production has been cancelled for this year," citing complaints about the script's profanity and use of racist and homophobic slurs.
The play in question, The Laramie Project, focuses on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, who in 1998 was beaten to death by two young thugs, both Laramie residents.
The play was composed in an unusual manner. In the aftermath of Shepard's 1998 death, a group of New York actors decided to make several visits to Wyoming for the purpose of interviewing the actual participants and other residents of Laramie. The Laramie Project, a collaborative script produced over a period of several months, is composed entirely of the actual words of eyewitnesses: students, bartenders, school administrators, ranchers, ministers, activists, the murderers themselves and their families.
After rehearsals began on Sept. 23, Director Bryan Jackson told the students that, because of the sensitive nature of the material, he wanted the student actors to read the play with their parents, or, at minimum, to read with their parents the portion of the script they'd be enacting in their own roles.
By Sept. 27, Principal John Swett indicated that there were potential objections to the production: One of the parents had called a vice-principal at LC, expressing objections to the play's profanity. By Monday, Sept. 30, Jackson was in meetings with Swett and Spokane Public Schools Area Director Emmett Arndt; by Oct. 2, Swett had informed Jackson that the show would not go on.
Swett reports that "two things that I considered in the language were specifically the profanity and the use of the word 'faggot.'" Swett emphasizes how much LC faculty members work on instilling respect for others in students, and he cites a recent survey underscoring just how offensive the anti-gay epithet is. Such disrespectful language, he argues, is not in keeping with the school's educational mission: "The fundamental question is, with all the work [the faculty and students] do on respect, is it appropriate ever to have that kind of language in a play at a public school? I don't know the answer to that."
But Swett does know Vickie Countryman, director of the Equity Educational Support office at SPS, "and I know that she and Bryan had discussed the play on several occasions."
"I first spoke to Bryan in late May, early June," says Countryman, "and I told him that, based on the offensive language and the slurs, it was a sensitive issue, and that we needed to look at how to talk about it. So I gave him a form and told him that he needed to get a sign-off from the school. I saw him again in July, for a five-minute conversation, and reminded him about the form." As Equity Director, Countryman volunteers an anecdote about the school's sensitivity to diversity: "You know, LC has been very supportive of gay-lesbian student concerns. In fact, last spring, a same-sex couple were elected King and King of the Prom."
Terren Roloff, community relations director for Spokane Public Schools, agrees: "You can see that we are not shying away from these issues," she says. "But in the case of this play, we didn't have an opportunity to talk with students and put the play into context. When we teach controversial books, we can have talk-backs, and there's resolution and writing and lots of discussion. But when it's a play, it's after hours and you don't have that opportunity."
But Jackson claims that he had provided a variety of ways for students to process their feelings about the play's concerns, such as the connections between homophobia and violence: "We were kind of stifled. We had contacts with student groups at Eastern and at Gonzaga, to be part of panels, so there was an educational piece to all this. In fact, the first of these related activities took place [on Oct. 6], even after the cancellation of the show: an on-campus candlelight vigil to memorialize Matthew Shepard and to speak out against hate crimes. Fifty kids and parents showed up."
Still, objections have centered on the offensive language in the script. Roloff remarks that "When I glanced through it, I could see that this play is laced with profanity." (For the record, in a two-hour play, the words "hell" and "damn," together, show up more than the
f-word does. For all the emphasis placed on homophobic slurs, the word "faggot" appears exactly three times in the script.) Based on objections to language first expressed by a parent, Swett cancelled the production. Roloff adds that "I can say that Dr. Brian Benzel, our new superintendent, supports John Swett 100 percent in his decision."
In response to administrators' charges that they were taken by surprise, Jackson responds that "they should've heard about it. The play was selected for production in March. In May, we met to finalize the school calendar. Now, at that time, Swett was the vice-principal dealing with the staff, so he may not have heard about it from the activities v.p. Just after school started, though, we had posters up on the wall announcing auditions and explaining the plot."
In the history of banned books at public schools, censorship often backfires, drawing more attention to the purportedly offensive material than would otherwise have been the case. Whatever the timeline of who knew what when or which forms were filed with what office, the sudden deletion of the play from the school's calendar has already electrified the debate among students and faculty about vulgar language and controversial issues.
Jackson points to the benefits that can derive from uncensored performance. He supports the educational goal of exposing students to hard facts, then persuading them to evaluate those facts in a mature manner: "We need to be open to this kind of stuff, because then we can teach that kind of discretion. We have a thing here called Coffeehouse," he continues, "where [students] can perform anything, uncensored. It's after school. And they do and say some things that would make you squirm. But over time, they evolve out of that need to shock. They're kids; they're just testing the waters. Once they learn that their audience accepts real quality material, then they start to learn what they can do and what they can't do -- and what they should do."