I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear papa.”
My friends and I happily sang those Monty Python lyrics, at the drop of a hat, throughout our teen years, identifying with Michael Palin’s exuberant character, rather than the men who walked away from him in dismay. Yes, we’d seen men dress as women in comedy sketches, but those were burlesques, painted in broad, garish strokes. There had never been a declaration of donning women’s garb as a part of regular life, let alone by a macho character like a lumberjack.
In my little gang of friends, we didn’t necessarily know or talk much about homosexuality, which was decidedly less open in our suburban lives in the 70s (though one of our group later came out, to little surprise from any of us). We also hadn’t heard of terms like transvestitism or cross-dressing. Remarkable as it may seem, Monty Python may have played a key role in raising our consciousness, even more so when we learned, in the following decade, that Python’s Graham Chapman was gay, sadly lost too young to cancer.
So it’s particularly galling, more than three decades later, to find that South Williamsport Junior/Senior High School in Pennsylvania has just shut down an intended production of Monty Python’s Spamalot reportedly because of its gay content. WNEP News paraphrases the school’s drama director, Dawn Burch, as saying, “school officials dropped the musical because of its homosexual themes, according to an email she says she received.” WNEP quotes the superintendent as saying, “We want our performances to be appropriate for the student performers and audiences so that anyone participating or watching can enjoy all aspects of the show.” There’s no indication of what he finds inappropriate or unenjoyable.
I have already reached out to Burch, as well as to the school’s superintendent, for comment; I’ve received no replies as I write a few hours later. I would very much like to read exactly what the e-mail that nixed the production said. The language needs to be brought out into the open. But if Burch’s characterization is accurate, it marks the first time I’ve encountered a school explicitly saying that gay content caused cancellation of a show; the language is usually veiled, with references to mature themes, difficult material or, as even the WNEP report is headlined, “questionable content.”
The WNEP piece continues, “In that email, Burch says the principal wrote that homosexuality does not exist in a conservative community such as South Williamsport.” If the principal believes that, then he is standing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad who denied that homosexuality existed in his country during a 2007 speech at Columbia University. He is backing the rationale of Russia’s Vladimir Putin who has outlawed the “promotion” of homosexuality. That’s a very strange cast of characters for any high school principal to be aligned with, especially in such a conservative community.
While I’ll grant that there’s some language in Spamalot that a combined junior and senior high school might have some concerns about, they certainly could take those moments up with the licensing house, Theatrical Rights Worldwide. In fact, TRW already has an FAQ with suggested edits for schools right on its website (click here, then ‘Resources,’ then ‘FAQ for School Productions’).
But the marriage of the characters Herbert and Lancelot is non-negotiable. I asked Jim Hoare, director of licensing for TRW, whether they would ever entertain the excision of those nuptials, and his answer was blunt: “Absolutely not.” Hoare said that hundred of schools perform Spamalot annually.
This news is just breaking, and I’m writing with limited information at what I suspect and hope is the start of a story, not the end. One facet to be explored: Dawn Burch’s husband Samuel is on the district Board of Education, and both are active in community theatre as well, so there may well be support for the show above the level of superintendent.
Despite this coming to light just before a national holiday (gee, didn’t Trumbull High cancel their production of Rent right before Thanksgiving?), it must survive the weekend festivities, on a wave of deserved outrage. School may not be in session, but hopefully the students can organize, like students in Trumbull High School in Connecticut, like students at Timberlane High in New Hampshire, via social media, to increase pressure on the narrow-minded, retrograde administration.
That any educator or school administrator
is still denying gay love and gay life in 2014, that a school would cancel a show in a move designed both implicitly and explicitly to shame and frighten any gay student, teacher or person, is simply ugly and wrong. It’s worth noting that in the very first news piece on this, reporter Kristina Papa quickly found people to counter the principal’s alleged, now retracted, assertion about gay life in South Williamsport, which must have really startled the blinkered administration.
It’s worth noting that gay marriage is legal in Pennsylvania. So it is ironic that, as they marry in Spamalot, Lancelot says to his spouse, “Just think, Herbert, in a thousand years time this will still be controversial.”
I guess Tim the Soothsayer had warned Lancelot about South Williamsport, PA. But maybe we can change history, if we raise our voices together.
I urge you to write Superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm (email@example.com) and Principal Jesse Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) to voice your concerns (and please share your correspondence with me, if you’re willing, at howard [at] hesherman [dot] com. But I ask that you do so respectfully, even if the district doesn’t afford the same respect in its attitudes and actions.
Addendum, July 3, 5 pm: WNEP now reports that the principal did not make the statement about “homosexuality not existing.” I have left the material in place with the text and my rhetoric about it struck through, because I cannot deny having shared that original report or that I made statements resulting from it, but to show that they are also no longer supported by facts in evidence. Disclosure of the e-mail at the root of this controversy seems more essential than ever, and it should be noted that the school administration certainly has the legal right to disclose it should it wish to do so.
For those who do read the original WNEP story, it should be noted that the local resident and parent, Manny Tskitas, who makes several statements in support of the school administration’s position and questions the play choice, is also a staff member of the South Williamsport school district, as the librarian for grades K through 6. It would have been beneficial if WNEP had noted his affiliation.
Correction, July 5, 7:30: The original version of this post stated that Graham Chapman died of AIDS. That was an error and the text has been updated with accurate information.