You may have heard about South Williamsport Junior/Senior High School in Pennsylvania cancelling a school production of "Monty Python's Spamalot" due to "homosexual themes." (Spoiler: Two of the knights want to get married.)
As an arts journalist, as a theater lover, as an Executive Committee member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and as someone who just a few months ago saw a luminous Indianapolis high school production of "The Color Purple" (Spoiler: Celie experiences love with another woman), I enthusiastically added my name to the following letter, which was sent Thursday evening to school officials.
19 September 2013
Dear Dr. Stamm and Mr. Engel:
On behalf of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)—the only national organization for professional critics who report across all media—we are writing to express our disappointment in the process and reasoning behind the cancellation of the planned production of Spamalot at South Williamsport High School, due to discomfort over the musical’s “homosexual themes.”
As journalists, we support your students’ First Amendment right to exercise free speech, which does not stop at the doorways of our public schools. In 1988, the Supreme Court decided that censorship of the style and content of student speech must be related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. The assertion of South Williamsport High School principal Jesse Smith that a musical featuring “homosexual themes” would not be appropriate for families or the community at large lacks pedagogical value—unless the goal is to teach your students to discriminate against their LGBT peers and neighbors—and it is at odds with Pennsylvania state law, which upholds same-sex marriages as legal and valid. Censoring productions in this manner also sends a hostile message to South Williamsport’s own LGBT students and families. Are they not members of the community, too?
Spamalotis not a fringe work. Its source material, the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, has delighted high school students since 1975, firmly securing its place in the British and American comedy canons. The original Broadway production won three Tony Awards (the commercial theatre industry’s highest honor), including Best New Musical, in addition to the Drama Desk Award for best musical. More than two million people saw the original production, and the show continues to play frequently in professional, community, and academic theaters.
To date, it has courted no significant cultural controversy, aside from the one created by South Williamsport school offials. But even if it had, art is not simply passive entertainment—it should also provoke discussion, inspire change, and open minds. Educators do their students no favors when they withhold arts experiences that might challenge their students’ still-developing worldviews. Theatre, with its immersive nature, is above all an exercise in empathy. Student-actors learn to understand and portray another person with his or her own history and perspectives, and audiences are given the opportunity to care about people they might not otherwise meet. To rob your students of this experience does them a grave disservice. It also tells your students that personal squeamishness trumps their access to the same educational opportunities afforded to drama students at other schools.
The several hundred journalist-critics of ATCA ask you to reconsider your actions and re-instate the 2015 production of Spamalot. If we can be of any service in this endeavor, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Jonathan Abarbanel, Chair of the Executive Committee
Chicago (Windy City Times, WCDB Public Radio)
Members of the Executive Committee:
Dr. Barry F. Gaines, Albuquerque, NM (ABQFreePress)
Lou Harry, Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Business Journal; IBJ.com)
Wm. F. Hirschman, Plantation, FL (FloridaTheaterOnStage.com)
Michael Howley, Montgomery, AL (Montgomery Advertiser)
Erin Keane, Louisville, KY (WFPL/Louisville Public Media)
Myrna Petlicki, Skokie, IL (Chicago Footlights; Pioneer Press)
Tim Treanor, Washington, D.C. (dctheatrescene.com)
Wendy Rosenfield, Meadowbrook, PA (Philadelphia Inquirer)