The Loudoun County students who staged a play over the weekend about a high school football star's homosexuality heard some gasps, along with expressions of support, during their play's two-day, modestly attended run at Ashburn's Stone Bridge High School.
Now, thanks to a high-decibel dust-up over freedom of expression and values, student writer-director Sabrina Audrey Jess's one-act play, "Offsides," has a dramatically expanded audience.
Loudoun GOP Del. Richard H. Black said schools today tend "to encourage homosexual activity."
Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) e-mailed his supporters claiming that, in the play, "two male students engaged in a homosexual kiss onstage" and that public schools were "being used to promote a homosexual lifestyle." His son-in-law, Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run), followed up with a missive of his own, warning of the play's disturbing "indoctrination." On Sunday, activists blanketed Loudoun churches with fliers decrying the production.
The school district had received about 150 e-mails about the play by yesterday afternoon, Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said.
The players, author and scores of residents showed up at Loudoun's school board meeting last night.
"I try to promote tolerance in a school where there is not enough among teenagers and am in turn flooded with the intolerance of their parents," Jess said, in comments that prompted a standing ovation among supporters.
"People who are negatively commenting on my play are proving my point," she said.
Senior Aaron Henry, who played Ryan, said the play made a simple point. "People are who they are," he said. "Accept them. That's it."
Similar conflicts have riled communities nationwide. Such struggles have been especially pointed in parts of Northern Virginia, where pockets of intense social conservatism coexist, sometimes uneasily, with more liberal views.
"Within our public schools, there is a tendency to encourage homosexual activity, to portray it in a cute or favorable light," Black said in an interview yesterday. "This is a considerable health hazard right now. If we encourage just one child to experiment and contract the HIV virus, then we have done an enormous disservice to our children."
David Weintraub, who is part of a gay-rights group called Equality Loudoun, said Black and others are trying to thwart free speech.
"This is just these self-appointed thought police trying to dictate to all of us what we and our children can see and read and think," he said.
Masumi Black, a senior who designed the lighting for the production of five short plays -- three written by students plus one by Woody Allen and another by Molière -- said she and her classmates have the sophistication to handle the difficult issues that are often the subject of effective drama.
"Essentially, it's a football player trying to find himself. He finds out he's gay. He mainly just wants people to be accepting of who he is. . . . It's mainly about tolerance of who a person is," Masumi Black said. The reaction to her classmate's play has been "blown out of proportion," she said.
The play was previewed by drama teacher Glen Hochkeppel and Stone Bridge Principal Jim Person, Byard said, adding that Person edited out some questionable language but approved the play.
Jess said she warned cast and crew that her play dealt with homosexuality, which prompted one male student to abandon the project. Just before the play began, the audience was warned that it portrayed "sensitive and mature issues surrounding sexuality."
Yesterday, school officials showed a videotaped performance of the 20-minute play, which was acted on a bare, dark stage.
The main character is a high school football star named Ryan Foster, called "God among his peers" by a narrator. Ryan dates the "tragically beautiful" Julie and hangs out with tough-talking jocks. Soon Ryan meets Bryce, a polite boy, and the two hit it off. They spend hours talking and laughing together.
Later, Ryan introduces Bryce to his friends, who tease him for befriending a "queer." Bryce then confronts Ryan alone and challenges him to consider why they bonded -- and tells him to "do something."
At that moment, Ryan leans in for what appears will be a kiss, and the lights go out. On the tape, some in the audience are heard to giggle and gasp.
In successive scenes, Ryan wrestles with what has happened before coming to terms with his homosexuality and asking his friends to accept him as he is.
Ryan looks at the audience as he speaks his final lines: "Am I a little too much like you for your own comfort? Do you hate me because you see a little of me hiding in you?"
Jess emphasized at last night's school board meeting that the actors never kissed. "It was completely staged," she said.