Media & Marketing

NOTIONS: My son's latest lesson in censorship

March 28, 2005

My son, Austin, phoned a few weeks back. He was excited. Well, he was as excited as a 16-yearold can be (read: a little).

The cast list had just been posted for the spring musical at his high school. For the second year, Austin had landed a part-not a lead, he said, but for a sophomore, a good part. Rehearsals were to begin immediately.

I uttered my fatherly bravos. We said goodbye. And I shared the news with his grandparents, who were sitting in my kitchen. Then I ran downstairs to key the performance dates into my computer.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Although the selected show had been on the school calendar since August; although it's been produced recently at Ball State University, Indiana University Bloomington and a Jesuit high school near Sacramento; someone with power, glory and access to school bigwigs decided he or she didn't approve of "Bat Boy: The Musical."

So, days into rehearsal, Homestead High School Principal Dianne Moake requested a script to review.

Early last week, Austin phoned again. This time, he was as sullen as a 16-yearold can be (read: very).

He said the principal had decided "Bat Boy" was inappropriate. He said she wouldn't elaborate. It was just inappropriate.

So the musical he and his classmates had hoped for a year to perform, the one I'd taken Austin and his brother to see at Ball State, the one for which he'd prepared by listening to the CD I'd given him, was suddenly sacked because of a vaguely explained complaint from an unnamed source and without regard for a tenured instructor's artistic freedom or input from cast members or their parents.

Controversy ensued.

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette ran the story on Page 1. When the Associated Press picked it up, it ran in newspapers across America.

Cast members' parents met and appointed representatives to meet with the principal. The principal told the parents there'd be a script review committee for future productions at Homestead.

Some students edited the "Bat Boy" script and libretto, axing anything that might offend anyone. The principal rejected the rewrite and ordered the director to select another show. The director met the letter of his obligation by recommending "Urinetown."

The principal rejected that, too, and directed the director to produce "Little Shop of Horrors"-a show with an apparently "appropriate" man-eating plant, sadomasochistic dentist and half the number of roles in "Bat Boy."

Since I've seen "Bat Boy" twice, the irony of deep-sixing this particular production isn't lost on me. Unlike "safe" and "lite" musicals of decades past (e.g. "Oklahoma," or "How to Succeed in Business"), there's a deeper meaning to this one.

As the review in the Internet magazine CurtainUp said, "It takes the humanity of this mutant [the title character] to demonstrate the show's serious message, the prejudice and intolerance of men towards someone or something they do not understand. This is no travelogue ... but a condemnation of rural ignorance."

So, essentially, are those all-over-America AP stories about us rube Hoosiers and our reactionary censors.

One of the "Bat Boy" scenes likely deemed inappropriate by an ultraconservative critic occurs in an Eden-like garden populated by singers and dancers clad in animal costumes (It's a "Lion King" send-up). The critters, led by Pan, urge the now-refined Bat Boy to make love with a local girl who's fallen for him.

Among the lyrics apparently too lewd for my sons' MTV generation:

The Earth's asleep, time to wake it. If you have clothing, forsake it. We want you breathless and naked. Choose your mate; and then let's see what we create!

Yet a few nights after "Bat Boy" was bagged, Austin and a classmate attended a Homestead High School dance.

"When we got there about 10 o'clock," he said, "the lights were low; Lil' John [a rap artist] was singing about his 'hose;' and 500 high school students were bumping and grinding away.

"To sanction that kind of dancing and freak out over a Garden of Eden scene is pretty hypocritical," he said.

At press time, Austin was waiting to learn if the school could get fast-track rights to "Little Shop" and wondering which future shows could survive the school's new censorship committee.

He also was debating whether to even audition for a production in which the most memorable line ("Feed me!") is uttered by a plant, or to protest by his absence the repression of a repressed fellow like Bat Boy, who sings:

I'm not here to harm them I only want to learn They all walk in sunlight I deserve a turn I want to know my neighbors I'm not some garden gnome Why can't I make this world my home? It's torture to sit here idly while I'm being slandered in public. I can only imagine what they're saying.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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