In the 1980s I lived in New York City and attended an East Village church with many friends who were struggling artists. I would go to off off Broadway shows to see them perform in Israel Horowitz’ ‘Line’ where the cast often outnumbered the audience made up of friends of the actors, and if they were lucky a potential manager who had already seen Line forty-three times but wanted to see how well a potential client could really act.
The adult Sunday School classes were often on topics like Christianity and literature and we would discuss Christian themes in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, W. H. Auden, and Flannery O'Connor. We would talk about what it means to be created in the image of our Creator. We would talk about the Gospel in the contemporary context of AIDS and drug addiction.
Years later, I saw a local high school production of ‘Rent’ and thought back to those days, those friends and their struggles. Four years later, after Sandy Hook, the local high school produced Sweeny Todd and a group of townspeople organized against it, led by a local priest. They were concerned about the depiction of violence. I attended a Board of Education meeting, and spoke in agreement with those concerned with the depiction of violence I encouraged everyone to attend the musical, and then to gather with friends to discuss it and broader topics of violence in society.
Another person who testified at that hearing was Howard Sherman, and I started following his blog. Recently, he wrote about church leaders in Tullahoma, TN criticizing a production of Rent there.
I shared the following as a comment on Howard’s blog post:
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?
As I suggested when our local school produced Sweeny Todd, go see the play, and then get together with friends and discuss the underlying themes. In the broader context, I’ll take a phrase kicked around a bit and apply it here. “What Would Jesus See?” I suspect Jesus would see plays about suffering, love, and redemption. Rent would probably be high on that list.
Saturday morning, the leading edge of the winter storm had arrived. It was still just snowing lightly, but it had already snowed enough to make the roads messy. Because of events on the previous weekends, it had been a couple weeks since I had made it to the transfer station and I really wanted to go before the weather got bad.
These days, every big storm brings up the topic of climate change. Yes, it had snowed recently in Egypt, for the first time in over one hundred years, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary with this storm.
On the radio, Scott Simon had talked about the drama around the production of RENT in Trumbull RENT has been much on my mind these past several days.
After dropping out of college back in 1980, I moved to New York with a couple friends. We lived in an old spice factory that had been converted to loft space in Brooklyn. One of my roommates was a painter who was working on a masters degree at NYU. Another was a photographer who was a food service manager at CBS’ broadcast center, and a third was a sculptor trying to find some way of making it in the big city. Upstairs, there were dancers. I aspired to write poetry and supported myself writing computer programs.
It was not ‘La Vie Boheme’ from RENT, but it came close. I met pushers and pimps, prostitutes and junkies. I remember the first time I saw someone shooting up in a car on 2nd street when we went to visit friends in the east village. Safely up in the apartment we sang Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done.”
A couple years later, I left to spend eight months hitchhiking around the States and Europe. I stayed with friends of a friend in San Francisco and walked down a quiet Castro street in 1983. AIDS was on everyone’s mind.
When I came back, I live for a while with actors on Mott St in Little Italy and spent time talking with the old WW II and Korea veterans who drank Wild Irish Rose as they sat on the steps of the laundromats not far from the Bowery. One of those actors was from Greenwich, which now has already produced the High School version of RENT. ANother was from Trumbull. I don’t know if his folks still live in Trumbull, or what he thinks of what is going on there now.
Somehow, we all made it through those turbulent times. I got married, started a family and moved to Connecticut. It wasn’t until the nineties that I knew someone who died from AIDS. A friend of mine was gay. He didn’t tell people because he was afraid he might lose his job. His partner of 14 years had contracted AIDS and I remember doing the little I could to help.
A couple years later, my first wife left me. It was devastating to me. She got a job teaching theatre and moved to Trumbull. She still teaches at a private school in Connecticut. I haven’t spoken with her about what is going on in Trumbull, but I suspect she sees these sort of conflicts more than she would like.
During my reminiscences the song from RENT, “Light My Candle”, came to mind. I remarried. Fortunately a less tumultuous relationship than that of Roger and Mimi and she still lights my candle thirteen years later.
On my way home from the transfer station, after unloading my trash, I listened to the special coverage of the one year anniversary of Sandy Hook. I listened to the bells toll from Asylum Hill as a professor from Hartford Seminary talked about grief, hope, forgiveness and community. She spoke eloquently about what she heard in each bell toll, children’s laughter, gun shots, screams. tears, the tears of parents, of the community, of the world. They talked about other lives that have been lost to gun violence.
The words of John Donne came to mind.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
It’s been a year. My mind goes back to RENT. 525,600 minutes. Seasons of Love. How do you measure a year?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
High school was hard for me. Not academically, I got good grades good test scores and was an honor student. But I was socially awkward and my parents separation and our financial difficulties weighed heavily on me. It was things like high school musicals that helped me through those difficult years.
A few years back, I found that there are municipalities near Trumbull where the median household income is over $200,000 and other municipalities where the median household income is less than a tenth of that. Sandy Hook is just a few towns away.
In the discussions of Sandy Hook, people often ask, who failed. Why didn’t the gunman or his mother get the help that they needed?
Was it because the school administration and the members of the community were unwilling or unable to confront challenging topics? I’m not saying that a tragedy like Sandy Hook is likely to happen in Trumbull because of overly cautious administrators, but I do believe we need to look closely and see how the actions of the current administration in Trumbull relates to other failures in education and community across our country.
OK, and so one of the expressions I learned at Electronic Arts, which I love, which pertains to this, is experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And I think that’s absolutely lovely. And the other thing about football is we send our kids out to play football or soccer or swimming or whatever it is, and it’s the first example of what I’m going to call a head fake, or indirect learning. We actually don’t want our kids to learn football. I mean, yeah, it’s really nice that I have a wonderful three-point stance and that I know how to do a chop block and all this kind of stuff. But we send our kids out to learn much more important things. Teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance, etcetera, etcetera. And these kinds of head fake learning are absolutely important. And you should keep your eye out for them because they’re everywhere.
These words from Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture often come to me when I read about school administrations seemingly getting in the way of education. The latest debacle in Trumbull is a great example of this.
The short version is that the principal canceled the production of the high school version of the musical RENT because of the sensitive issues that it raises. When he received pushback, he said that more time was needed to talk with students about the topics. After the story went national and theatre companies across Connecticut offered to assist, he backed down a little bit, but still had to try and get the last word in by moving the date to one that conflicts with other school events.
On one level, he is to be applauded for his efforts to make sure there is a meaningful discussion around the play, if that is his true intent. He has spoken about having the Anti Defamation League help with these discussions. This got me curious. Why the Anti Defamation League?
Yes, there are lessons to be learned about homophobia and bullying, but there are so many more lessons to be learned as well. As a health care activist, I’m especially interested in discussions about HIV/AIDS. I’ve written before about HIV/AIDS in the area around Trumbull High School and have spoken with other health care advocates in the area.
One health care worker in the Trumbull area I wrote to replied, “As you may know, I've been working in the area of HIV for aprox. 21 years, as we are in the 32rd year of the epidemic, I don't think we have done a good job with addressing the stigmas that is associated with the disease….Trumbull is part of my catchment area. I have not been able to make any inroads in that community.”
Yes, let’s have a serious discussion about the issues RENT brings up. Let’s make sure we have an open, honest, and frank discussion about HIV/AIDS around Trumbull and how stigmatizing the disease only makes things worse.
But back to the Anti Defamation League. I wondered why they were involved. A search online about the Anti Defamation League and the high school musical RENT turned up this article:
Apparently, another high school tried cancelling RENT. In this case, football students bullied a student who had expressed her disappointment about the school cancelling RENT and soon after “received honors from their school for their athletic prowess.” The ADL became involved in part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought against the school district.
I hope, for the sake of Trumbull that the school does not get sued, and that there won’t be negative repercussions for the schools football team.
This was four years ago, so I wondered if there was something more recent I should know about. So, I contacted the director of the Anti Defamation League in Connecticut to talk about what was going on there. He wrote, “Although we have not formally heard from the High School at this point, we have seen the press reports and a press release from Trumbull High confirming that it will get us involved in this matter.”
He also wrote about how the ADL already has “a pretty deep and long relationship with Trumbull High School. For a number of years now, we have been providing the school with training that fights bigotry, promotes respect for difference and counters bullying.”
One would think that if the principal of Trumbull High School was so concerned the educational opportunities around RENT, he would have contacted them already, instead of having them rely on news reports and press releases about the controversy.
This takes me back to my opening. There is a lot to be learned from producing high school musicals. Some of it is indirect learning. The student who spoke up in favor of RENT has demonstrated amazing poise. The principal who refused to appear on camera is demonstrating that he is a petty bureaucrat most likely propped up by other petty bureaucrats, more interested in demonstrating what bullying is by trying to make things difficult for others when he can’t get his way.
Let’s hope that the students in Trumbull, as well as their parents and voters find more ways to stop bullying.
Over the past week, there have been several stories that I’ve been following that all fit together in an unexpected larger theme. The first was the release of John Jorge’s Music Video, Lovin’. For those who don’t recognized the name yet, I think the first time I was him perform was in the Amity High School’s production of Rent.
I believe this was the day before Thanksgiving, which is the second story to pay some attention. Every year, we stop to give thanks for all that has been given us. As a New Englander who can trace his genealogy back to the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this is an important day for me. Part of what I’m thankful for is the freedoms my ancestors came to this country in search of.
Another big story for me of the past few days is my completion of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I finished the first 50,000 word draft of my second novel on Saturday. There is something very empowering to set out to create something challenging and complete it. I will see if I will go through the editing and revisions necessary to get it to be presentable for publication, either through traditional channels or through self publication.
Then, there was the story in the Washington Post of a teacher resigning because of what is happening in education.
All of this leads up to World AIDS Day and an incredible article in the New Yorker, What Young Gay Men Don’t Know About Aids. I work at a Federally Qualified Health Center that treats people with AIDS. I am a Health Leadership Fellow of the Connecticut Health Foundation working with others to address health disparities in our state.
AIDS is a very important topic we need to have open and honest discussions about, which leads me to the final story I want to focus on.
An article in the Hartford Courant put it this way.
Student representatives from Trumbull High's theater department were told last Monday that the show they planned to perform next spring covered topics too "sensitive" or "controversial" for a high school.
Originally, I was planning to write an open letter to the Trumbull High School administration, pointing out how not allowing the production of Rent was incredibly short sighted. I would talk about depriving students of opportunities for prepare for their careers, as the Amity production of Rent helped John Jorge on his career. How not allowing the production went against the freedoms that our forefathers came to this country for. How not allowing the production was an affront to all people seeking to improve the lot of mankind through creativity. How not allowing the production would damage the school district by showing a heavy handed administration that doesn’t allow educators to challenge their students. How not allowing the production was an insult to the people of Trumbull by saying that students at Amity and in Greenwich where Rent has been produced are more capable of handling “sensitive” or “controversial” subjects.
But the most important topic to me was the health topic. According to The Connecticut Department of Health there were nearly 700 case of HIV infection reported in Bridgeport, the city next to Trumbull during the years 2002-2011. Yes, the rate of new infections has been going down, but every new infection with HIV is one infection too many.
HIV/AIDS is not too “sensitive” or “controversial”. HIV/AIDS is an infection which we can stop the spread of. We can do this by talking openly and honestly about the infection, about the stigma. If we care about the children in our schools, we need to have these discussions.
I am tempted to wax polemic adopting the voice of preachers I know that would point out that by preventing these discussions, there is blood on our hands. Yet I’m not sure that is effective. It isn’t really my style.
But, this evening, I went to a World AIDS Day event where another section of the quilt was unveiled. It commemorated people in Connecticut how had died as a result of AIDS. It was attended by people who were living successful lives knowing that they were HIV positive. These were people who have confronted the stigma, found out their status and were getting the treatment so that an HIV infection for them was a chronic disease, not a death sentence. These were people who knew their status and because of their knowledge, were not spreading the infection.
I wept with them as we mourned the death of loved ones.
In my heart, I prayed for those who indirectly contribute to the ongoing spread of HIV by thwarting opportunities for discussion. I wished they could have stood with me at the unveiling of this latest section of the quilt and I pray that these words might cause some to stop and think about what their decisions mean for freedom, for education, and most importantly, for health.
We live in a polarized society where just about everything is right or wrong, black or white, either/or, and rarely both/and. Perhaps this is some of the starting point of the discussion about the Amity High School Theatre Department's production of Sweeney Todd. It is violence ladened entertainment, or it is art. Even when talking about art, we find this dichotomy, art for art sake versus art as a means of societal change.
Last night, at the Amity Board of Education, I suggested a middle ground. Can we look at Sweeney Todd as both art for art sake, and art capable of bringing about positive societal change? Can art contain distasteful violence and be redeeming at the same time? If we are willing to step outside of our preconceived assumptions, it just might be possible.
For me, this relates back the whole idea of indirect lessons. Kids learn football for football's sake, yet at the same time, they are learning about teamwork. There's a lot of teamwork you learn when you are in a musical. Yet there's even more. There is a certain amount of emotional intelligence and empathy that can be indirectly learned by the cast and the audience a like. There can be catharsis and redemption even in a play about revenge.
Amity has a great tradition of theatre, yet one thing that I've not been able to find around that has been groups gathering to share with one another what they have experienced and learned from attending the productions.
The dust up around the production of Sweeney Todd appears to be offering an opportunity to fill this need. Over in a discussion on the Orange Patch, The Rev. Ann Ritonia wrote,
"a community discussion on violence is a wonderful idea. All are invited to attend a continuation of a community dialogue on April 23rd at St. Barbara's Greek Orthodox Church sponsored by the Orange Interfaith Clergy Fellowship. Prevention of Violence in our Culture: The Next Steps will begin at 7 pm and childcare will be provided. The public is welcome and Middle and High School Students are most welcome to participate in the discussion."
I hope people will attend Sweeney Todd. I hope they will then join the discussion at St. Barbara's Church. Let's celebrate and share art for art's sake that brings about positive social change.