Thursday, September 22, 2011

Idiot of the Month: Amateur Theatre Division (Runner-Up and Champion)

Two amateur theatre productions in different parts of the country have been shut down this month for offending the tender sensibilities of idiots with the power to censor their enterprises.

Of the two suppressions, far and away the less troublesome is the decision by Wayne Garner, the mayor of Carrollton, GA, to overturn a decision by the board of the city’s arts center to present The Rocky Horror Show, long after the show was in rehearsal and a fair amount of city money had presumably already been expended.

Mr. Garner is a prude and an imbecile, of course, but at least it’s possible to see his point: while defenders of the production can quite reasonably wonder what the city was expecting when they booked Rocky Horror, implicit in that argument is an acknowledgment that the play is “risqué.” Indeed, naughtiness is no small part of the charm of a musical that features bi-sexual seductions, R-rated choreography, and song titles like “Sweet Transvestite.”

Still, Mayor Garner over-reacted, imposed his personal prejudices on the community, over-rode the board charged with making the very kind of decision he claimed for himself, and generally acted like a schmuck. In a normal month, this would have made him a contender for Idiot of the Month, Amateur Theatre Division. But he’s mayor of a jerkwater town in the Deep South: I confess I don’t expect a lot more from such people.

Besides, Garner’s escapades came before we heard about Thomas Fleming, Superintendent of Schools in the Richland School District in western Pennsylvania. He shut down a high school production of Kismet. Yes, really. Kismet. The quintessentially 1950s musical that gave us songs like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “Stranger in Paradise”: that Kismet, one of the most innocuous plays ever staged. Ah, but (wait for it): the central characters are Muslim. Seriously. That’s it. That’s the concern.

“After reviewing the script, the decision was made to move on rather than risk controversy. We're in the business of trying to do what’s best for the kids—not to do anything detrimental if we can avoid it.” That’s the official declaration of the Superintendent of Schools: an ungrammatical (don’t get me started on that part) celebration of cowardice, bigotry, and censorship. Mr. Fleming may be incompetent, unethical, and craven, but at least he serves a function: definition by example of everything that is wrong with the nation’s schools.

I’m so old I remember when educational leaders sought to instill free-thinking, moral courage, and the values that made the country great. The Flemings of the world engage in pabulum-speak, capitulate to the most moronic elements in society, and stifle students while pretending to take care of them.

The correct response to those cretinous yahoos who believe that scheduling a production of Kismet “not long after the tenth anniversary of 9/11” is the slightest bit problematic is easy for anyone with a brain and a spine, two organs not prominent in Mr. Fleming. It would look something like this:
STFU. [OK, maybe that part should just be inner monologue.] Criticizing this play choice simply because the characters are Islamic is both an egregious misreading of the central themes of the script and an outrageous insult to one of the world’s great religions. To suggest that the Muslims of Kismet bear any real resemblance to the 9/11 hijackers is to say we can’t produce The Sound of Music in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was raised Catholic. It is an inane and illogical argument; it could not be advanced by an intelligent and rational person, and is therefore unworthy of legitimate consideration.

We seek to create young men and women who are empowered by the world of ideas and energized by the vast panoply of human culture, who view free expression as central to the American way of life, who believe in facts and reason rather than bigotry and hysteria. Such students, such citizens, cannot be cowed by the rantings of hand-wringing zealots of any description. Censorship of this musical, which, after all, won the Tony Award over a half century ago, and was produced at this very school without incident in 1983, would send all the wrong messages to our adolescent population: that being ignorant and loud trumps being intelligent and respectful, that capitulation to extremism is appropriate if it averts controversy, that the exchange of ideas should be subordinated to a doctrinaire religio-political orthodoxy, that the most innocuous of artistic events ought to be subject to prior restraint.

We do not ignore these arguments; we reject them as ill-founded, irrelevant, and repressive. Our production of Kismet will go forward as scheduled, and we have every confidence that it will be a source of pride for our students and our community. We’d be happy to sell you a ticket. Or you can stay home and pout. Your call.
Of course, as noted, such a response would require an IQ above room temperature and the leadership skills of the assistant captain of the 6th grade intramural flag football team: considerably more credentials than Mr. Fleming and his equally gutless minions have manifested. I offer best wishes to those student thespians unlucky enough to be subject to the pusillanimous posturings of Mr. Fleming. I hope they have fun and learn a lot on their production of Oklahoma… which will presumably be staged without the character of Ali Hakim.

All is not lost, of course. In a country as large as this one, there are bound to be some real idiots. I just wish fewer of them were school superintendents and principals.

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