It is a tale of two cities. Well, one ultraliberal metropolis of 8.4 million, and one teeny, conservative town of 3,340. But both face the same threat: dangerous art.
Here in New York, the threat is a world-renowned opera company’s production about terrorism. In Maiden, N.C., the threat is a high school play about love.
“Almost, Maine” has enjoyed nearly 2,000 school productions since its premiere in 2004. It is, in fact, currently the most frequently produced full-length play in U.S. high schools, edging out even “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Set in a fictional town in remotest Maine, the whimsical rom-com features nine interlocking vignettes of romance and heartache, playing on familiar idioms about love. The figurative act of “falling in love,” for example, is illustrated by actors literally falling down. It’s a bit like a better-written, slightly surrealist version of “Love, Actually.”
High school students around the country, including those in Maiden High School’s theater club, are drawn to an appealing combination of slapstick, wit and wholesome schmaltz. School administrators likewise appreciate that the most explicit dialogue in John Cariani’s PG-rated script is the minced oath “Jeezum Crow.” Who could object to that?
The community leaders of Maiden, it turns out — to one vignette in particular. Remember that scene with the falling-down gag? There’s no sex, or kissing, or even allusions to lust. But the gravity-prone characters are both men, which was incendiary enough to lead the principal to cancel the production, citing “sexually explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendoes.”
Suspecting that the gay story line might be an issue, the students had asked the principal to okay their play choice several weeks earlier. After consulting with the superintendent, he did, on the condition that parents sign permission slips allowing their kids to audition for a play with homosexual characters. Then, after the 16-year-old student-director started rehearsals, word got out to local churches that the show contained gay people. Just a few days after same-sex marriage became legal in the state, the students were told “the community isn’t ready” for this play after all.
They were distraught. They’d already broken their budget securing the rights, and they worried about the message the principal’s decision sent to their openly gay classmates. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to help the group fight the decision — as happened in 2011, during a similar battle at a Maryland school — but the students declined legal help, not wanting to cause more conflict. They still hoped to produce the play, though, so when a former teacher offered to help mount an off-campus production, they agreed. Their Kickstarter page set a goal of $1,000. Less than a week later, they had already raised six times that amount.
Many of the donations, and accompanying petition signatures, have come from sympathizers far from Maiden. On social media and in national news reports, far-flung supporters of the students accuse the town of bigotry, backwardness and intellectual suppression.
Members of liberal, arty communities around the country posted self-righteous condemnations on Facebook, yet in New York, arguably the arts capital of the world, we’re facing our own outbreak of theatrical censorship. The show being targeted is not a tiny amateur production but one by an international cultural juggernaut: the Metropolitan Opera.
Unlike “Almost, Maine,” the Met’s production of “The Death of Klinghoffer” waded more knowingly into controversy, given its sensitive subject matter. (It recreates Palestinian terrorists’ 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship and their subsequent murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish man.) Public pressure caused the Met to cancel its international simulcast and radio broadcasts. The eight live performances continue, but they have been met with nasty protests and denunciations from the pillars of New York’s community: former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former governors David Paterson and George Pataki, and current Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D) and Peter King (R) , among others.
As with “Almost, Maine,” many of the critics acknowledge never having seen the show. And as in Maiden, calls for censorship have likely attracted more, not less, attention to the work, which the Met says is selling well. Indeed, the bright side of both these hissyfits — at least to an arts lover like me — is that they demonstrate that live theater still matters. Maybe it’s been pushed aside by Hollywood and other forms of mass entertainment, but the local rialto still manages to inflame and provoke, both in cosmopolitan New York and in small-town North Carolina. May the architects of censorship never win out — and more importantly, may the show go on.
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