Saturday, July 13, 2013

Banned in Ottumwa

A stone cross at the fence near Laramie that Matthew Shepard was tied to, tortured, then left to die.

Ottumwa High School administrators this week adopted an interesting strategy for putting the Bulldogs on the map --- banning a student production of the acclaimed The Laramie Project because it's "too adult." 

"Too adult" translates as "too gay."

And in the same week, The Ottumwa Courier reported on Ku Klux Klan activity in Bloomfield, Eldon and Agency.

Welcome to the south of Iowa!


The Laramie Project is a play by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Company, first performed during February of 2000 in Denver, about the death of Matthew Shepard (above), the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was tortured and murdered near Laramie during October of 1998 because he was gay.

His death and the culture that facilitated it, then responded with shame, are explored in a script based upon hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents conducted by the theater company soon after the murder, as well as company members' journals and published and broadcast news reports.

It is a stunningly effective production, although challenging to stage --- a small cast portrays more more than 60 characters in short, fast-moving scenes divided into three acts.  Kaufman also modified the play for an HBO film version, which he directed, during 2002.

The Laramie Project has been performed since in hundreds of high schools, colleges and universities across America --- as well as by professional companies --- often generating controversy, especially at high school level.


The usual complaint from those who hope to derail productions has been "inappropriate language." Because the script is based upon interview transcripts, there are cuss words --- similar to those I've heard from the 13-year-olds who hang out at our public library some days, throwing rocks and otherwise aggravating adults. I guess most students already know the words.

OHS Principal Mark Hanson, who banned the production, has declined invitations to appear on camera, but did tell KTVO-TV  that “the play is too adult for a high school production but it does preach a great message.”

Superintendent Davis Eidahl, who backed Hanson's decision, spoke more extensively, explaining that "The rationale is we really want to produce and showcase family-friendly productions, where all family members can come. The productions are to showcase our students, our auditorium, the district. And it's a time we connect with the community." 

Missing here is the idea that a high school drama department production might also focus legitimately on stretching the horizons and talents of the students involved and the horizons of their fellow students --- even the community in which the school is located.

The unspoken undercurrent probably reflects an unwillingness on the part of administrators and perhaps a school board to confront those in the community who would be distressed because The Laramie Project doesn't make Shepard sufficiently complicit in his own death --- flaunting that gay lifestyle of his, being friendly to everyone, open about who he was --- and dressing nicely.


The Matthew Shepard Foundation summed all of this up effectively in its response to the district's decision to ban the production: 

"The Laramie Project is performed by dozens of high schools across the country every year. Wherever it is performed, the story of what happened to Matthew and the impact on the town of Laramie strongly engages both the student population and the community in a conversation about hatred and the violence it breeds. This is one of the reasons we at the Matthew Shepard Foundation devote considerable resources to support productions of this play.

"Young people everywhere face issues such as hatred, bias, and social exclusion on a daily basis, and to believe they don’t wrestle with adult issues in their high schools – indeed, to curtail public dialogue about them – is damaging. Students of all ages, whether they be in Iowa, New York City, or any other part of the country, are living this 'adult content' of bullying, hatred, and violence on a daily basis. They are much wiser and have seen more than many adults would like to believe.

"This is not a play about being gay, or promoting anyone being gay; it’s about being targeted, hurt, murdered for being different, or perceived to be different, whatever that difference may be – and how this affects the community.

"It is regrettable that the administration decided not to take the lead to provide their students and their community such an important learning opportunity, and instead is focused on a desire to show off their auditorium in what they feel is a 'family-friendly. manner. We respectfully suggest that the main mission of a school district is to educate, not to entertain."


In fairness to the school district, it does seem to have proactive anti-bullying policies in place --- and Ottumwa High School, as of February, has a gay-straight alliance, OHS Bulldogs for Equality. These alliances are rare, if not otherwise unknown, in Iowa's southern two tiers.

Everyone involved is being polite, doing their best to avoid the appearance of a conflict over censorship.

Much is being made of the fact an effort will be made by OHS students and others to stage The Laramie Project independently, divorced from the school district. You can find the Facebook page of Theatre Adventures here.

An independent enterprise like this faces many challenges when divorced from the resources of a school district, however, even though it has the backing of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. 


One of southern Iowa's little secrets, something those of us who love it here don't much like to talk about, is our cultural immaturity, a trait shared by much of deeply rural Iowa. Too many of us here are "left-behinds," investing heavily in longing for the good old days when everyone knew his or her place and everything seemed good --- while we watch the best and brightest high-tail it elsewhere for various reasons, including their sexual orientation, as soon as they can.

Ottumwa High School certainly hasn't helped to improve that situation. But we're so afraid ....

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