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Recently banned and challenged plays

The hot-button titles in the school repertory

Here’s a list of plays and musicals that have been the subjects of community challenges or official prior restraint actions in American high schools and middle schools (and in some rare instances, colleges) reported in Dramatics magazine in recent years.

  • Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by Steve Martin, at La Grande, Oregon, High School, April, 2009. The production was canceled by the board of education after complaints about “bawdy” content. The show was produced off-campus with financial support from the playwright.
  • Rent, book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Multiple cancellations in Newport Beach, California; Bridgeport, West Virginia; Red Wing, Minnesota; suburban Dallas, and other locations in 2008-09. Administrators generally cite language and what they consider to be inappropriately mature content. In the California case, it was widely reported that the principal at Corona Del Mar High School canceled the production because of the musical’s treatment of “prostitution and homosexuality.”
  • The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project. Multiple challenges and cancellations, including three in one month—at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Oregon; Elgin Park Secondary School near Vancouver, British Columbia; and Bristol (Connecticut) Central High School—in September 2005. After months of study and discussion, the Beaverton production was allowed to continue. The Bristol production also got a reprieve, but was allowed to go on only as part of an educational program presented during school hours.
  • Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, by Christopher Durang. In November, 2008, Southeast Missouri State University offered ticket refunds to any audience members who were offended by the Durang play—and more significantly, pledged to review its policies on the selection of plays for season subscriptions—after a wealthy donor objected volubly that the satire “ridicule[d] and scorn[ed] the Christian religion.” As it happens, the school’s theatre is named after the complainant, and her letter to the president of the university was published as an op-ed piece in the local paper, which is owned by her family.
  • The Tender Yellow Sky, by Tim Milhorn. Milhorn, a veteran teacher at Orland (California) High School who has frequently written plays for production by his students, was six weeks into rehearsals of this new title in the fall of 2008 when the school district superintendent announced the show was canceled. School officials said they were concerned that the play’s exploration of teenage suicide might cause some students to consider killing themselves.
  • Higher Ground, a play about bullying written by Portland, Oregon drama teacher Jennie Brown for her students at Sherwood Middle School, was canceled three days before the scheduled performance in February 2008. School officials said the script’s treatment of bullying, racism, homophobia, and intimidation was too mature for the students. Ultimately the play was performed at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts and the school’s principal and district superintendent told the school board they were sorry for the way they had handled the matter.
  • Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward, at South Walton High School in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, canceled by the county board of education after community complaints that the play might “encourage exploration of witchcraft and the occult” and undermine students’ commitments to monogamous relationships. The production was moved off campus to nearby Seaside Repertory Theatre.
  • Catcalls, a short play by Peter Keahey, a student at Yellow Springs (Ohio) High School. When administrators demanded changes in some of the dialogue a few hours before a scheduled February, 2008 performance, Keahey refused, and the cast and crew read a letter denouncing censorship to the audience instead of performing the play. Catcalls was later performed at a theatre space on the campus of Antioch College.
  • And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. Lakota East High School in suburban Cincinnati canceled a November, 2007 production of the play on the basis of an NAACP complaint that the mystery had once had a racially insensitive title. (First called Ten Little Indians in the United States, the play was based on a novel that was published in England under a title that substituted a racial epithet for “Indians.”) Two days later, the principal’s decision was reversed by the school board and the production went on.
  • Voices in Conflict, a piece adapted from the writings of American veterans of the Iraq War by students at Wilton (Connecticut) High School. A scheduled April 2007 performance was canceled by the school’s principal, who said the script did not present a “balanced view of the war.” Wilton theatre teacher Bonnie Dickinson was invited to bring her students to perform the piece at two Manhattan theatres, The Culture Project and the Public Theatre, the following June.
  • The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler. Three students were suspended from John Jay High School in Cross River, New York after reading a selection of the play during a March, 2007 open mic session at the school. The suspension was later overturned after the playwright personally intervened.
  • The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, and Grease, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. A production of the Miller play scheduled for Fulton (Missouri) High School in the spring of 2006 was pre-emptively canceled by the school’s principal after community complaints about “immoral behavior” in an earlier production of the retro musical. In a statement, the principal said he had canceled The Crucible “to avoid additional scrutiny that had already occurred as a result of the fall production of Grease.”
  • Bang Bang You’re Dead, by William Mastrosimone. “Too violent,” according to East Guernsey, Ohio school officials in September, 2005.
  • Godspell, by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. “A breach of church-state separation,” said the same administrators. The two teachers involved in the drama program at East Guernsey’s Buckeye Trail High School resigned their unpaid positions as drama club advisors.