The Playgoer: CT HS censorship case not over

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

CT HS censorship case not over

I just want to second and further publicize Alisa Solomon's plea in last post's Comments to speak up for the rights of Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher at Wilton High School in Connecticut, who sheparded her class in the "Voices in Conflict" docu-drama project consisting of testimony from soldiers in Iraq.

Solomon saw the show and heard in the talkback that despite the show's success both at home and now in some command performances downtown, Dickinson is still being threatened with suspension.

Here's Alisa:

YOUR ACTION IS NEEDED:

The censorship was bad enough. Now, Bonnie Dickinson, the drama teacher who developed and directed the play with the kids in an acting class, is in serious jeopardy of being suspended from her job on the grounds of fomenting an artwork that lacks "balance". (Familiar bugaboo on this blog.) It will set a seriously damaging precedent if she's reprimanded or punished, said the first-amendment lawyer Martin Garbus in a discussion after the performance.

Letters supporting Dickinson and the project can be sent to: Timothy Canty, Principal, Wilton High School, 395 Danbury Road, Wilton, Connecticut 06897.

If you need to learn more about the play and the school's squelching of it, see: www.voicesinconflict.com If you are a reader of this blog, you don't need to do any backgroud homework on the wider issue of cancelling plays for their lack of "balance."

Not that this is a particularly anti-war play, though. It's just honest about the hell that war always is, regardless of one's pov on the merits of its justifications. There's no discussion whatsoever of the non-existent WMDs, etc. in this verbatim collage of letters, emails, and diary entries from soldiers.

Some express thorough commitment to the cause; some reveal doubt or confusion; one describes his split-second decision to shoot a woman who could have been a suicide bomber but turns out to have been harmless; another, back from the war, tells about his PTSD; all of them miss their moms. And so on. There's no rhetoric -- other than a pro-military rap song -- and no discussion of policy.

Some service members (some from Iraqi Vets against the War) were in the house and praised the students for telling the truth about the situation on the ground for their courage in persevering. (The kids were subjected to lots of harrassment by fellow students. Common slur: "theater fag.")

Sure, I over-identified, as anyone who was stage-struck in high school would have done. Still, I have to say, it was one of the most moving evenings I have experienced in the theater in a good while. One kid in the cast said during the discussion that the experience convinced him that he could make theater that left people thinking and talking long after the houselights came up. And his teacher is the one who might lose her job? What a sad commentary on education system. And on our theater.

Alisa


Amazing how dangerous a play can still be, eh? I mean, if a kid gave a speech at an assembly, or put up an art display, he or she might be called to the carpet, I suppose. But something about the critical mass of a group of performers--reaching out to groups of audiences--will always give theatre its unique power, I suppose. And threat.

Save the teacher!

3 comments:

John Branch said...

Two or three reactions. One, I wonder what would've happened if, somehow, the students in question had undertaken to perform Journey's End instead. Or Lysistrata. That's the kind of experiment that can only be performed in thought, I suppose.

Two, I'm not sure whether it's laziness on my part, or a certain preudo-journalistic yearning for confirmation, or something else, but: though I know Alisa Solomon's name and and have no reason to doubt what she says, I do wonder whether there's any source of further information on this matter. Has the school or the school board in question made any public statements? Has the teacher? Is all this somewhat behind-the-scenes and off the record?

Three, related to two: Many people made a stink about NYTW's "postponing" of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and the result was that many of us have lost some of our respect for that theater, but it did not lead to the theater reversing its decision. Psychologically speaking, I can imagine that the blizzard of complaints somehow had the effect of entrenching NYTW in its position. And in the present case, I have to wonder whether the raising of an alarm will further convince the school and/or board that the drama teacher is a source of trouble who needs to be disposed of. This is not to say I advocate silence for that reason. But do we know the teacher's wishes in the matter?

Alisa said...

Thanks for the questions. Here are the best answers I can provide.

There is lots of public info on this case -- NYT stories to which Playgoer has linked previously; other materials gathered at the show's own website, www.voicesinconflict.com and more of it provided by one Jeff Massie who replied to my post when I put it in comments below: http://maxzook.wordpress.com/voices-in-conflict/

The principal's original objection is on that site (and quoted in the play!); the superintendent of the district wrote a letter to the editor of the NYT in response to one of their stories making pretty much the same statement. (Sorry, I don't have the link to hand, but it might also be on Massie's blog.) Essentially they say the play was unbalanced and involved graphic material, and that it was inappropriate for students to play the parts of soldiers -- but do have a look for yourself. A local paper in Wilton has also published an op-ed by a local parent -- of a girl who withdrew form the project (the only student to have done so) and of a son currently serving in Iraq -- who writes irately about what she regards as the teacher's bias and lack of honesty about it. Those are the only objections I have seen any record of in some quick research.

Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher, was part of the panel the other night along with the cast and the first amendment attorney Martin Garbus, who is representing her. (Chris Durang moderated.) Dickinson cannot talk about the case; Garbus said all the charges against her were bogus and that any reprimand would set a seriously terrible precedent, urged letters of support and gave out the principal's address. So while your question about whether Dickinson thinks letters might harm her case is an important one, I think there's a clear answer in this instance: no objection. On the contrary.

As for your first question, I can only join you in the thought experiment.

John Branch said...

All that is good to know. I imagine I could've found much of it by looking back at previous posts; this is one of those stories I wasn't able to follow earlier.

Dickinson reminds me of a vibrant and challenging history teacher I had at an otherwise pretty staid upper-middle-class high school in Texas. That teacher didn't last long at my school, and I have to hope she found a more welcoming environment elsewhere.

If Dickinson and her team are in favor of protest letters, I'll do my best to rouse my lazy-summer-day self and write one.