The public school elders of this Maryland suburb have decided that their teenage children are not yet ready for the age of Aquarius, prohibiting a high school drama class from producing "Hair," the tribal-love rock musical of the '60s generation.
Students at Old Mill High School, led by English teacher Arthur Smelkinson, recently submitted a sanitized version of the play -- shorn of nudity and obscenity -- to school officials for approval. After examining the script, with its Woodstock-generation references to drugs, sex, Vietnam and pollution, the review committee yesterday said it had no place on a high school stage.
"They said, 'Do a wholesome play,'" lamented Buddy Deece, a 16-year-old drama student. "Well, life isn't wholesome."
The controversy over "Hair" has bitterly divided the small school community, putting parents against children, and teachers against school officials.
"It's censorship," said Smelkinson, the 26-year-old, bearded teacher and graduate student at the University of Maryland.
One local printing firm has even offered to make up T-shirts -- free of charge -- espousing the students' cause.
School officials say the play, which has been performed in 22 countries and translated into 14 languages, not to mention having been adapted into a hit PG-rated movie, glorifies the drug culture, uses offensive language, stereotypes ethnic groups and accepts sexual freedom as a norm.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Smelkinson, Anne Arundel school superintendent Edward J. Anderson said the play "has literally no redeeming virtues which would make it suitable for production in a high school."
James W. Dunagan, head of Anne Arundel County high schools, said yesterday he had not read the "Hair" script but agreed with the school superintendent's decision to ban the play. "It's a question of what is in good taste," Dunagan said. "And whether it is compatible with general and specific community values."
But the students argue that art imitates life. They say banning all references to sex and drugs will not solve the problem.
"It's not like no one does these things," said 16-year-old Brad Bechtel, a member of Old Mill's "Thespians." "Half this school is involved with it. aThis is real life. This is what's happening.It's the world. They're trying to treat us like we're in a glass cage."
The 2,300-strong student body at Old Mill -- most of whom were in the first grade when "Hair" opened on Broadway in April 1968 -- voted overwhelmingly last month to perform the play. "Hair" has been produced in high schools in New York and California, according to Smelkinson, but not in Maryland.
"I don't understand it," the wiry, dark-haired teacher said yesterday. "It's a show about the '60s, about a certain group of people known as 'hippies.' I'm not going to be able to change history."
Old Mill's spring production last year was "West Side Story," which students say included sexual and racial overtones. Before that, "Cabaret" -- which featured male homosexuality -- was presented without objection.
"It's just the word, 'Hair," said 14-year-old student Ray Holland. "They think it's going to be a dirty play."
Besides cleaning up the language, Smelkinson cut the nudity scene at the end of Act One, and also delected two sexually explicit songs from the production. "He (Smelkinson) really wants to do the play, and so do we," said 17-year-old student Steve Heppding.
"Hair", which was pronounced by President Carter's security adviser Zbigniew Brezinski to be "a beautifully benign treatment of a malignant period," is the story of a youth, Claude, who cannot decided whether to go into the Army or resist the draft. He chooses the military and is killed in the final scene.
The show, which has been seen by an estimated 20 million people, may seem dated now.
"We didn't grow up during the '60s," explained Buddy Deece. "But we still have a right to know."
Smelkinson said the show is also timely now that registration for the draft seems likely. He added, "My students are concerned with drugs, the draft and Afghanistan. This is wath they relate to. Those are the facts of life."
"Hair," which played to packed houses on Broadway for four years, is no strnger to controversy. In 1970, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the production must eliminate nude scenes and those simulating sexual intercourse.
The show went on as usual, with cast members defying the court order. In May of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court was divided 4 to 4 over the Boston ban, which meant the show could go on without changes.
In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the show could not be banned in a Chattanooga, Tenn., public auditorium.
Smelkinson, who says he "doesn't believe in controversy for the sake of controversy," plans to appeal the superintendent's decision to the school board. If that fails, he said, he will go to court.
As for the students, they are two weeks behind rehearsal schedule for the April production and trying to find another play. When asked if they had considered "I Remember Mama," the drama students laughed. "We've never heard of that," one said.