Preparing For Anti-“Rent” Messages From Tennessee Pulpits

July 3rd, 2015 § 18 comments

PACT Rent posterIf you are a musical theatre fan in general, and a Rent fan in particular, and you’re going to church in or around Tullahoma, Tennessee this Sunday, there’s a chance you may not like a bit of what you hear said from the pulpit. That’s because there’s an e-mail circulating among the area’s religious leaders alerting them about Jonathan Larson’s Rent, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about young lives in the East Village of New York City a few decades ago. Some of the clergy may want to talk about it.

A Tullahoma production of Rent is scheduled to open next Friday, presented by the community company PACT at the South Jackson Civic Center. It’s set for six performances over two weekends and it’s the third time that PACT, which is primarily focused on arts activities for youth (the acronym stands for “Performing Arts for Children and Teens”) has done a show which reaches beyond their usual age group, in this case working primarily with performers aged 18 to 20, but with one as old as 55. Only two performers are under 18, and the parents of both have signed permission slips approving of their children’s participation; those under 18 even needed permission slips just to audition. No one under 18 will be admitted to performances without a parent or guardian present.

Since preparations for the production got underway several months ago, those leading the company say that there have been some minor skirmishes around the show. During the winter, a member of the community circulated an e-mail speaking out against Rent and the leadership and artists of PACT in general, but I’m told it didn’t get much traction. Later, after the show was cast, the actor who was originally to play the character of Angel had to withdraw due to his father’s ire over his participation in the show. But of late, everything was proceeding smoothly for the show, including the recent decision to welcome the company of another Tennessee Rent production, which just closed last weekend in Johnson City, into the Tullahoma ensemble.

*   *   *

Highland Church HighlanderHowever, a few days ago, an e-mail was circulated to church leaders throughout the Tullahoma area. In a communication to his congregation, Pastor L. Wayne Wester of Highland Baptist Church quoted from that original e-mail, identifying the author as “a fellow Tullahoma Pastor”:

I want you to be aware that on July 10, 11, 12 and 17, 18, 19 a theater group in Tullahoma will be performing RENT. You can do your own research on RENT or visit the PACT site on Facebook for a brief description. In short it is a musical about a group of college age students who choose to live a “bohemian” (sexually, morally, and legally permissive lifestyle in New York City. The cast of characters include a stripper, transgender individuals, drug addicts, and many who are battling HIV due to their “bohemian” lifestyle. Several scenes take place in a strip club. While I have no objection to a theater group selecting and performing any musical or play they choose, this is our own (Tullahoma) theater group! What is worse is that this play was selected for PACT. The acronym stands for “Performing Arts for Children and Teens.”

Pastor Wayne, as he signed his communication, added his own thoughts after the quote:

Really? Do you agree with me and many of my fellow Pastors and concerned parents that this is inappropriate for such a group? If you do…speak up about it! If you don’t…shame on you. Jesus should be our moral compass, especially for our young people to see from adults. I would like to know your opinion…one way or the other. Really!

At the top of the message, in red ink, was the phrase “Bus Ministry Possibility – vote on Sunday in PM Service.”

Dr. Wester did not name the pastor who wrote the original e-mail. However, I spoke with Zac Collins, the stage manager for Rent, whose uncle and grandfather are also pastors in the community, who told him that they had both received the original e-mail and said that other pastor friends had received it as well. They told him that it was sent by Jim Zidan, Senior Pastor of Christ Community Church in Tullahoma.

Coleen Saunders and Melissa Shuran, the President and Vice-President, respectively, of the South Jackson Civic Center and co-founders of PACT, told me that while Pastor Zidan had twice visited the civic center seeking e-mail addresses for the leadership, no e-mail or letter expressing concern about or opposition to Rent had ever been received.

*   *   *

I wrote to Pastor Zidan with questions about Rent and his e-mail. Here’s part of his response, verbatim:

I don’t believe or community has an interest or appetite for such fare; particularly for our children.  Our previous PACT productions have been Oliver, Big River, Pinnochio, and Peter Pan.  This is a pretty big deviation from those family friendly productions.  I have attempted to speak to all the leaders of our theater community, including the current leaders of PACT. I even offered to speak on our local community television show to express my concerns and inform the public.  No one seems interested in having this discussion so I have decided to sit and wait.  I may write an editorial for our local paper, but I think I well wait until after the production.  It is not my desire to sabotage this performance.  I think it will fail financially.  We’re it not for PACT money and the accompanying grants (for children’s theater) I don’t think they could even have produced this show.  Ultimately it is up to our parents and local theater leadership; and apparently they are all asleep at the wheel.

I had asked Pastor Zidan whether he had ever seen or read Rent, but nothing in his response to me answered that question. He also did not respond to my question about what he hoped to achieve with his e-mail to his colleagues, or directly acknowledge it.

*   *   *

It’s impossible to know how pastors in the Tullahoma area are responding to Pastor Zidan’s message. Some may choose to speak against the show at services this weekend (or vote about it, in Pastor Wester’s case); others may wish to speak in support of Rent. It’s impossible to know whether any of them are personally familiar with the show itself. Consequently, in the hope that this essay might find its way into the Tullahoma community and beyond, a few words in support of Rent, PACT and the cast and team behind the upcoming production – or any production, for that matter – seem warranted.

Rent is a modern classic  Rent premiered in New York in 1996 at the Off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop, where it was such an immediate sensation that it moved to Broadway only a few months later, where it won, as mentioned above, the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the highest honors in American theatre. It’s notable that the Pulitzer is rarely awarded to musicals; it occurs roughly once every 10 years. Rent ran for over 11 years on Broadway, playing to an audience of over 5 million people, and untold millions more on tour and in regional, amateur and school productions since then. It was made into a film and its final Broadway performance was recorded widely sold on DVD.

Rent is universal  The reason Rent is still being performed almost 20 years after it was first produced is because while it is set very specifically at a moment in time and a particular place among a small group of young people in New York, it speaks to people from around the world. Every community is a mix of different races, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, strengths and weaknesses; Rent’s success is because so many people can find themselves or their own families and friends on that stage. It can simply be embraced for what it is, exuberant and moving entertainment, or it can be used as a point of departure for conversations about ambition, family, illness, acceptance and loss.

Rent was born amidst tragedy  Rent was the breakthrough work by the talented young writer Jonathan Larson – who didn’t live to see its success. Jonathan died suddenly of a rare heart condition just after seeing the final dress rehearsal of the show. He never saw it with an audience and was never able to experience its success. Rent was Jonathan’s gift to a world he left prematurely, at the age of 35.

Rent is about love  Rent is the story of people who gather together to create, to share and to form their own family born of love and care for one another. Musician or stripper, performance artist or filmmaker, they travel the journey that so many young people travel, as they find themselves and their place in the world. Some are lost along the way, and we never know what happens to others after the play stops, but it is a show about seeing people lovingly for who they are, not judging them for their choices or even failings.

Creative artists deserve the opportunity to grow  While PACT was begun with a focus on those under 18, it’s not unusual to find artists wanting to spread their wings beyond a previously defined mission, which most recently at PACT included a version of Robin Hood this spring. With the majority of the current cast between 18 and 20, PACT is giving young adults an opportunity to stay involved in the arts, and the leadership of the group the opportunity to explore even more of the theatrical canon. They have made it very clear that this is not their typical fare, so no one is surprised, with their intentions reinforced in the local press. As an independent organization, they have they right to determine their creative direction, with the ultimate arbiters of their work being their audience.

There are no scenes set in a strip club  Just FYI.

*   *   *

That the message from Pastor Zidan came out only this week would seem rather late in the game, with the show starting performances next week. In any event, I think it’s important to say that of course the pastors in Tullahoma have the right to communicate with one another and to preach as they see fit. I hope and trust that their messages are of love, acceptance, and understanding, not just for their parishioners, but for all people, including those who might mirror the characters in Rent, as well as those who want to see it or participate in it.

I also hope that those who might hear or read pastoral messages against Rent will take the time to read more about it, to listen to its songs, to consider its words as well, should they be pressed to judge it in advance. Most importantly, I hope everyone will remember that they have the absolute right to speak their minds, but that should the situation rise to the level of trying to stop Rent, which Pastor Zidan says is not his intent, they might keep in mind that those creating and participating in the show have the right to tell that story and to sing those songs for those who wish to experience it. Before any of us begin thinking to try to silence any voices, we must think about how we would feel if someone attempted to silence our own.

Rent may have, to some, a squalid setting, but is about struggle, friendship, community, equality, love, sacrifice, life and death, and even redemption. Those seem like themes worth exploring and embracing in every city and town, every day, in places of worship, in theatres and beyond.

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Disclosure: as I have noted in my writing in the past, I did not know Jonathan Larson, but came to know his parents and sister through my work at the American Theatre Wing and its assumption of the grant programs originally undertaken by the Jonathan Larson Foundation.

Note: I welcome respectful dialogue about this in the comments section of this site, however I will remove any personal attacks or rude remarks. This is not censorship; it is my right as the author of this post and the operator of this website to insure that dialogue remains constructive.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.


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  • Cat

    Well stated. Theatre should speak for itself, but when people speak against it, it’s reassuring to know that there are others like yourself who will speak FOR it – calmly, logically, respectfully. Hopefully this gives the people in that community some additional insight while they are deciding whether or not to purchase a ticket.

  • Jacob Shelton

    RENT in Tullahoma was originally double casted and I am the remaining Angel. This article was very moving and has its biases. I feel that the message of love shines through the biases; some of the pastors in our community are struggling to keep their biases from corrupting the messages of Christ.
    The news letter put out by Pastor Wayne Wester was copied and pasted from a message he received from a pastor whom he trusts despite all the misinformation it held. I am a member of his congregation at Highland Baptist, and know him to be a good man. He has his convictions against RENT primarily because it is being presented through PACT. I received this information from a private conversation we had in his office after my family received the original news letter,which I photographed, and now you can read above in this article. He admitted to his biases, asked for forgiveness for the misinformation he leaked out, but/and held his convictions to stand against our production because it is being presented by PACT.
    I still do not appreciate the unprofessional way he produced copies of false information and spread it through out his congregation. I do not know where I will hold church membership in the future either because of this act I have forgiven him for his actions because he admitted it was a mistake to not do his own research.
    We left the conversation on good terms and I hope no one wishes harm upon him. Even though his uninformed opinion of RENT is that it highlights the bohemian life style in a way that promotes sexual immorality etc. This is due to misguided messages sent to him by pastors whom he trusts and I do not know the names of.

    I hope everyone no matter their biases or convictions comes to see our production of Jonathan Larson’s RENT so they can at least have a grasp of what the play is all about, yes I mean Love!

    • Jacob, thank you so much for clarifying the situation regarding the casting, and more importantly for your thoughts on what has taken place.

  • Paige P Lashlee

    Welcome to the real life plot of “Footloose”.

    I am from Tullahoma, was raised here, and after nearly 20 years away, returned here to raise my children after being widowed. This is a wonderful, diverse, educated city and I hope the narrow views of few will not define my little town.

    My daughter, Caroline Graham, is the youngest cast member and is playing Mimi. I am so proud that she is being exposed to censorship in the arts at a young age and learning how to handle the situation with professionalism and grace. She has voiced her opinions freely on social media and received nothing but support from her family and friends.

    I am in full support of this show, love these kids and their directors so much, admire their resolve and dedication to the arts regardless of duress in the community. My company is proudly sponsoring Rent.

    This show will rise above the bad press, will be a success, and will be talked about for years to come. Thank you for your support and for getting our message out there. Love wins in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

  • nadineharris

    The settings of Oliver! are even more squalid, and it’s characters include pimps, thieves, a brutal murderer and an evil corruptor of children. I am puzzled why this show should be considered any less “unsavory.” Is NYC somehow more objectionable than London?

    • I am the Director of this production of RENT. It’s funny that you mention OLIVER, because it PACT’s show two years ago (last year we did BIG RIVER) I played Fagin in Oliver, then later Miss Hannigan in Annie in a revue. This group (PACT) is so diverse and FUN and inclusive that EVERYONE gets a chance — everyone, including ME. RENT itself has a blind person in it and an several autistic performers. I couldn’t be prouder

      • nadineharris

        And so you should be! Best of luck!

    • Paige P Lashlee

      My thoughts exactly. Pick pocketing, shop lifting, child abuse and murder must be okay for children to see according to the clergy at Highland Baptist.

  • Jonathan Ivins

    These comments are in response to some local pastors in the Tullahoma area who are opposed to and are discouraging their congregants from attending the musical RENT being performed at the South Jackson Community Center. Show dates are July 10-12 and 17-19. Under the PACT leadership, endorsed by the South Jackson Civic Association, Rent is considered by these pastors to be too risqué for impressionable young people, and the show should be avoided by all who do not want their friends and family corrupted by witnessing the Bohemian lifestyle
    portrayed in the musical.

    My wife, daughter and I are part of the ensemble in RENT. We consider it an honor and privilege to share the stage with such talented teens, young adults, and older adults. Besides being a public school teacher, I have a seminary degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and am the son of a United Methodist pastor. My family and I are Christians and have learned through many years of church attendance that the “Great Commandment”
    delivered by Jesus Christ is that, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater.”(Mark 12:31 RSV). Being a Christian in today’s world does not mean that you build up barriers and shun people who are not like you (white/black, straight/gay, Republican/Democrat etc.).

    Both inside and outside the walls of churches people are hurting and struggling with many issues that are part of the larger society. As a teacher, I have witnessed students expressing the desire to kill themselves because relatives and their churches condemn them for
    not being “normal.” Jesus preached to and dwelt among the sinners. One of the lyrics from Rent that quotes Jesus is “Let he among us without sin be the first to condemn.” Many of our fellow cast members have been persecuted for being themselves.

    Before forming opinions based on what you may have heard or read by others in the community, come to see Rent. My pastor and many of my family’s friends and relatives are planning to see the show to “see what all the fuss is about.” The musical is not meant to threaten or convert anyone to a particular way of thinking or living. It is based on a slice of life of New York artists living in the late ’80’s to early ‘90’s. It speaks to the human condition, and is intended to leave the audience with the impression that love and acceptance wins in the end, and redemption is possible.
    How do you measure a year in a life? LOVE!

  • Eric Constantineau

    Rent has one foundational message: make the most often time we have on this planet. In the show the sentiment is “no day but today,” a statement which, along with “what I did for love'” are the two passages my high school theatre group I direct wear as bracelets. The Greeks had “carpe diem” and the Elizabethans and Baroque writers has “memento mori”. Y’shua’s message so eloquently stated in The Beatitudes follow these ideas. By allowing young people to perform in Rent, and y allowing audiences to experience the show, both groups onstage and in the audience will hear echoes of foundational Christian values of tolerance, compassion and love. As the hymn states, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” Allowing Rent to be produced will be just another attestation and manifestation of Y’shua’s love.

  • I shared this as a Facebook comment, and I’ll probably expand on it in my blog. Here is my response for the Pastors in TN:

    As a devote Christian, I agree with part of what Pastor Wayne says, “Jesus should be our moral compass”. If we look at the New Testament, we find Jesus healing and breaking bread with characters not much different than the characters in Rent. Personally, I believe that one of the best ways to get a richer understanding of the Gospel is to attend Rent, asking yourself, when Jesus told us to love or neighbors as ourselves, who did he have in mind?

  • Pastor Jonathan Tolbert

    Hello, I was asked to share what I posted on a thread from the Facebook page of one of my parishioners… I have added a few additional thoughts at the bottom.
    “As your pastor, I can say that I have every intention of being present to support you, Jonathan,
    and Alex. As far as the article, if they are concerned about the
    content of the play, why didn’t they say anything about “Shrek.” It was
    an outstanding
    play with a great message, however it is full of sexual references and
    innuendos that are inappropriate… This article reminds me of the
    double standards that people have when dealing with sexuality. Both Rent
    and Shrek have inappropriate references present, however both have
    incredible messages… maybe Rent should have a donkey in it… that
    would change the harsh critique.”
    I think that the play will be great… the authentic Jesus, found in scriptures hung out with the people who had problems… one of these was a prostitute. He didn’t convict, he loved. I have seen Rent many times and I would summarize it as a group of messed up people who are trying to figure it all out. That is what we all are. And those are the people that Jesus spent time with, not the legalistic Pharisees.

  • Morgan Underwood

    As a long time member of the area’s theater world, this makes me wonder why the venom toward this show. I directed the teen version of Les Miserable two summers ago at the Manchester theater for their TAG (Teen Actors Guild) group. Even though the show was edited for teens, it still had prostitution, suicide, drinking of alcohol, violence and death. We also had younger teens than what the Rent cast has. We had girls dressed as prostitutes rolling around on the stage while singing! And it was great, the community loved it as well as the teens parents. It was a phenomenal show!

    I Personally support this show with all my heart. We in the theater world know that every role you take or show you direct, you learn something new and make new friends and sometimes find out something about yourself that you didn’t know before. I love all my theater family, I would have never met my wife if it wasn’t for the theater, and the show she met me in…I was in drag for most of it!

    I would ask the ones who wrote the letters to please go see the show and then go back stage and talk with the cast and crew. They will see love and harmony with a group of humans that exist no where else other than in the back of a theater.

  • Alicia M. Picone

    Would they be allowed to do LA Boheme? And please tell that pastor that the abuse heaped on Nancy by Sikes and the message that stealing is okay (“You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two”) hardly make Oliver! better. And don’t get me started on Peter Pan. Or Carousel.

  • Adam Miecielica

    Kind of funny how this tired old musical is raising eyebrows again.

  • I’ve taken my comment below and worked it into a larger piece on my blog:

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