July 2013 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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Iowa: High School Forbids Laramie Project as Not ‘Family-Friendly’

Charges of censorship and homophobia were voiced by students and adults who objected when an Iowa high school canceled the scheduled production of the Moisés Kaufman play The Laramie Project. The play, inspired by the 1998 beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, explores the impact of his death upon residents of that town. Planned as the Fall 2013 production by students in the Ottumwa High School drama club, the play was cancelled suddenly by principal Mark Hanson, with the backing of the district superintendent.

A drama club student, Jordan Young, expressed bewilderment over the cancellation. “None of us can understand why [the school administration is] shying away from it…We didn’t understand what was wrong with it. The planning started in October of last year. We have auditions in a month and half!”[1]

Drama teacher Natalie Saunders, with 15 years of experience at the school, was also surprised by the administration’s decision. According to the Educational Theatre Association, The Laramie Project is among the top ten most-produced plays in U.S. high schools.[2]

Some critics of the decision suspect that the administration is fearful of reprise of controversy that arose in 2006 when West Des Moines Valley High School attempted to stage the play. In that instance, the confrontational Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church came to Iowa to hold sidewalk protests, and some parents led an unsuccessful drive to unseat school board members who had spoken in support of the play.

Ottumwa Community School District Superintendent Davis Eidahl insisted that play’s references to sexual orientation were not behind the decision to cancel: “Our work to create respectful, compassionate students is a constant effort. That one play is not the backbone of our effort to create students respectful of differences, whether they are physical, lifestyle, our choices or ways of thought.”[3] The administration’s position is that high school plays must be ‘family-friendly,’ i.e. suitable for children of all ages.

Pam Schulz, a local resident whose nine grandchildren have attended Ottumwa schools, supported the decision to cancel the play: “That’s not a play that should be promoted for any family entertainment. I’m especially concerned about the younger children. They way it’s presented is just not healthy for student entertainment.”[4]

In an editorial, the Iowa City Press-Citizen denounced the school administration’s decision and urged them to reconsider:

“…the play’s themes fit very well within the growing anti-bullying movement as well as within the national conversation about marriage equality and other civil rights issues. (Those two issues come together annually in the Iowa Governor’s Conference for LGBTQ Youth). As such, both the play’s message and its content seem more appropriate than ever for a high school audience.”[5]

Drama club students say they have begun a campaign asking parents to read the play and express support for the staging to the administration. Saunders, meanwhile, has reached out to a local community theater to produce the play at the city’s performing arts center, with Ottumwa drama club students participating in the production.

According to the Des Moines Register, the Matthew Shepard Foundation issued a statement expressing disappointment in the school district’s decision. Among the arguments in favor of the play, the Foundation noted that

“teenagers – whether they be in Iowa, New York City, or any other part of the country – are living this ‘adult content’ every day in their schools, communities, and homes. Students of all ages deal with the issues of bullying, hatred, and bias on a daily basis. They are much wiser and have seen more than many adults would like to believe.”[6]

[1] Mark Newman, “Controversial School Play Cancelled,” Ottumwacourier.com, July 9, 2013, accessed July 29, 2013, http://ottumwacourier.com/local/x35808995/Controversial-school-play-cancelled.

[2] “Play Survey,” Educational Theatre Association web site, accessed July 29, 2013, http://schooltheatre.org/EdTA/Publications/PlaySurvey/.

[3]Newman, “Controversial School Play…”

[4] Michael Morain, “Controversial 'Laramie Project' Play Won't be Performed at Ottumwa High, “ DesMoinesRegister.com, July 22, 2013, accessed July 29, 2013,http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20130722/NEWS/307220033/Controversial-Laramie-Project-play-won-t-be-performed-at-Ottumwa-High?Frontpage&nclick_check=1.

[5] Press-CitizenEditorial Board, “Our View: High Schoolers Are Ready for 'Laramie Project',” Press-citizen.com, July 25, 2013, accessed July 29, 2013, http://www.press-citizen.com/article/20130725/OPINION03/307250022/Our-View-High-schoolers-ready-Laramie-Project-.

[6]Michael Morain, “Controversial 'Laramie Project' Play…”