Last year, the actor Taylor Mac played the title role in the Foundry Theatre’s acclaimed production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. This tale of a downtrodden woman who secures power in ancient China by cross-dressing as a man gained in depth and complexity from having the male Mac portray the female character Shen Te, only to transform into the male Shui Ta. Gender identity layered upon a story of gender discrimination enhanced the play, which managed to deliver numerous messages about society’s prejudices and ills in the context of a highly inventive staging.
I fear that next week, when a female high school teen plays the male drag queen Angel in a Long Island school production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, depth will be intentionally lost, in service of obscuring the homosexuality that is essential to the character.
I first learned of this plan back in December and wrote about it at the time, deeply troubled by the language Southold High’s superintendent used in an article in The Suffolk Times. Amid comments about a committee to “adjust” the script in an effort to make it “fitting for the community,” the possibility of a young woman playing Angel was not ruled out. I subsequently heard from anonymous sources that this had come to pass, and I’ve kept tabs on the local paper for updates. Confirmation of the cross-gender casting came only yesterday, via The Suffolk Times, ten days before the production begins its single four-performance weekend.
In explaining the casting decision, comments from the school authorities are inconsistent.
“The gender of the character can’t be changed, but any student can play that character,” production co-director Casey Rooney is quoted as saying. “A girl that we have cast in this part is the best person for the role.”
This has been rationalized with the claim that the young woman cast will be playing Angel as a male. As an advocate of non-traditional, inclusive, race-blind and gender-blind casting under most circumstances, I normally applaud opening up male roles to women. So if the school had an ongoing practice of gender-neutral casting, I’d accept that statement at face value. But there’s no evidence that this has ever occurred before at Southold, and the superintendent’s December statements strongly suggest another motivation, namely fear of the gay character of Angel, truthfully portrayed, on a public school stage.
The new article continues:
“Although the script calls for a male actor in this part, Mr. Rooney said the school has the discretion to change the gender. Ms. Baumann [the musical director] said this arrangement isn’t uncommon.
‘With some schools, maybe there are drama clubs that have two guys and 20 girls,’ she said. ‘So, you do have to make adjustments’.”
It’s worth noting that in explaining the decision, Ms. Baumann cites other unnamed schools, not Southold itself. An extreme scenario is proffered that may well exist at “some schools,” but since there are 48 students in Rent at Southold, are we to understand that there are only five “guys” in the cast?
Superintendent David Gamberg weighs in as well. “Rent-School Edition is about a group of young people trying to discover who they are, what they stand for and who they can trust,” Mr. Gamberg said. “Rent-School Edition is not about homosexuality. It is not about AIDS and it is not about drug use.”
I agree with Mr. Gamberg’s first sentence, about young people discovering themselves, and perhaps it’s not entirely wrong to say that Rent – school edition or original script – isn’t about homosexuality, AIDS or drug use. But those three elements are essential to the story and the characters. Even in the toned-down high school script, they are far from absent or diminished in the lives of Jonathan Larson’s characters. Explicitly downplaying those topics is a disservice to the show and to the students in it, and reads as spin control.
Rent is an opportunity for students to explore our complex world, gaining knowledge and sensitivity along the way. For those at the school who are gay (out or not) or have friends or family members who are gay, for those dealing with substance abuse issues in their lives, for those who don’t realize that AIDS remains a major world health concern, Rent is an extraordinary prism on aspects of daily life that surely exist in Southold, NY, albeit in different clothes and homes than those in the show.
The excuse that the role of Angel has been cast with a girl playing a boy who dresses as a girl has been sufficient to satisfy the licensing house and the Larson estate; I am far from sanguine about it. Rent is not a Shakespeare comedy. I believe that even with the words in the script rigorously adhered to, the audience, both student and adult, will see a romance between a flamboyant girl and her male partner, made safe a la Tootsie. Whatever the talents of the young woman cast as Angel may be, I strongly doubt, given her age and presumably limited experience, she is capable of embodying a male character fully, in the way that Linda Hunt managed on film in The Year of Living Dangerously, given the intentional inversion of gender iconography that is inherent in drag.
I can infer a variety of motivations – perhaps at worst homophobia on the part of the administration, at best maybe the unwillingness of any capable boy at the school to play a drag queen. Yet the sheer fact that the school superintendent is discussing the casting decisions of a high school play suggests that there’s an awareness of something amiss here that must be carefully handled, something risky, something fraught with danger. However, I should acknowledge that, so far as any public reporting has indicated, the lesbian characters in the Southold production are played by women, and they are not merely BFFs.
As for the original discussion of being “sensitive to the community as a whole,” I’m also troubled that, to my knowledge, no one in the community has openly and vigorously opposed the approach the school is taking, only posting dissenting comments on the article in The Suffolk Times. Without someone – or a better still, a group of students and their parents – standing up for an accurate, honest and accepting portrayal of a gay character, I’m just an outside voice shouting over a distant fence, an online nuisance, an easily ignored agitator. It’s worth noting that while The Suffolk Times reported on an upcoming public meeting to discuss Rent, there does not appear to be a report on the content of the meeting itself, which would have been instructive.
The cancelled production of Rent in Trumbull CT was restored with help from a range of outside voices, but the success fundamentally belonged to the people of Trumbull, because they wanted to see the right thing done in their high school. In the midst of the Trumbull fracas, I questioned whether, in 2014, high school students needed to be educated about homosexuality, AIDS and drug use, as the superintendent there suggested in arriving at a solution. I believed that these issues were prevalent enough in people’s lives and in the media that they would be redundant. Well, the adults at Southold High have proven me wrong – perhaps they need those lessons.
Disturbed as I am over the situation in Southold, I can’t quite bring myself to advocate for the cancellation of a high school show at this late date, to the disappointment of some five dozens students working on it. But I sincerely wish that the students, the community and perhaps most importantly the educators could get an education about the world we live in and how they’re undercutting a great work and a great learning experience. Sadly, all they’re teaching now is how to figuratively Photoshop that which they don’t like. If they’re not willing to both learn and teach, I hope they won’t attempt another show that is meant to grapple with real world issues again, until such time as they’re ready and able to deal with the challenges and complexity of real life on stage. At the same time, that would be an even greater loss for their students.