'Kingdom City' Examines Conflict Between Artistic Freedom And Community Values
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Seeing teenagers take on adult roles in high school plays can range from delightful to cringe worthy. When teenage actors grapple with adult themes in school productions, the result can be disturbing for an entire community. Many high school plays across the country have become targets of controversy, and sometimes censorship. A world premiere production currently at the La Jolla Playhouse examines the issues of artistic freedom and community value. The play is called Kingdom City, based on a real event. I would like to welcome Sheri Wilner and Gabriel Greene. Sheri, I have seen you described as an emerging playwright. What does it take to be an emerging playwright? SHERI WILNER: It takes a lot of fortitude and hard work. And opportunities like I am taking here, with someone to take a new chance on a new play. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is your first production in collaboration with the La Jolla Playhouse? SHERI WILNER: It is. It is the first production. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about the incident that inspired the play? SHERI WILNER: In 2006, I read an article in the New York Times about a high school production of The Crucible that had been preemptively canceled by the school superintendent in a small town in Missouri. A prior production that they had done of the musical grease elicited controversy from some members of a local church who felt the material was too risquÈ and immature for the students. Some of this community members wrote letters to the principle, and voiced disapproval of it. He was very much hoping to avoid further controversy during the school year of subsequent productions. He looked to see the next show being scheduled and it was The Crucible. He asked several colleagues for their opinion and they all agreed the material was probably too sophisticated, and it would also elicit controversy. He preemptively shut it down and did not allow it to happen. That story made it to the pages of the New York Times. I read the story and got shaken up by it, because so many other productions, in high schools colleges and universities, they have been shut down. That was material that I may not have agreed with myself in terms of them being canceled, I can see where the objections could spring from. With The Crucible, it was mind-boggling. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us briefly about The Crucible, Arthur Miller's famous play that premiered in the 1950s. It was controversial then because it mirrored the political climate of the time. SHERI WILNER: This was during the McCarthy era. He used the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for the McCarthy era trials, which was a very optic comparison of being another witchhunt. He was writing it about his own experience with the McCarthy trials, and his own expense with friends. He used Salem Massachusetts in the 1600s as a model for what was happening in the 1950s. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This was a staple play in the American theater. This is not on the fringes, this is one of the ones you read in high school. It took on this controversy. Did that surprise you when you read about it? SHERI WILNER: It did surprise me, because Arthur Miller's plays, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, there are certain staples of American drama and literature that felt unassailable to me, and they are masterpieces and things that form American cultural identity. As you said, pretty much every high school student at some point reads The Crucible in literature courses. There is an organization called the Education Theater Association, that publishes a list of the top ten most frequently produced plays in American high schools, and The Crucible has been on the list for decades. That is what disturbed me. It felt like a play that was safe from controversy, and it was suddenly now involved in controversy. It felt like a tipping point in which all of literature was open for that controversy. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gabriel, as a dramaturgical for La Jolla Playhouse, you did research in connection with this play about controversy over high school plays around the country. What did you find? GABRIEL GREENE: First of all, Sheri is a meticulous researcher. There was not a lot extra. She had been following these stories since 2006. What I found in looking over her articles and some of the controversies that are happening today is that this is a really widespread epidemic. Howard Sherman, a blogger and activist for theater has taken us on as his pet cause. He has identified all of these instances of schools becoming uneasy with what they perceive to be mature content. The latest, of course, is something happening in Pennsylvania, the production of Spam A Lot, the Monty Python musical that was scheduled to be produced this fall. What has come to light is that school administrators were uneasy with what they saw as the gay content of this show, in which there is a scene with two male lumberjacks that engage in a same-sex marriage ceremony. For a long time, that was disputed, that it is not a popular thing to object to, and yet some emails were unearthed that showed that is what the cause was. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do most of these objections revolve around sexuality of one sort or another? GABRIEL GREENE: Often they do. Rent and the Laramie Project, two of the most frequently targeted productions, they are both frequently targeted for that reason. There are others that we came across that really have very benign and altruistic motives. A play that have been written to bring light to the epidemic of teenage suicide was targeted because people thought talking about it and putting it on stage might encourage students to consider that route. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When dealing specifically with your play Kingdom City, how do you explore the dimensions of the tension that exists between people wanting to put on a play, artistic freedom, and what other people might consider community values? SHERI WILNER: First of all, even though reading the cancellation terrified me and angered me, I did not want to write a play in which was all about my terror and anger. I really wanted to dissect this particular flareup of a cultural war, and find out what was going on with both sides. To really explore my personal feelings about The Crucible. Early on, a mentor of mine said what is it to you whether or not a high school in Missouri gets to play The Crucible or not? Why are you invested in that? I used to play to figure out what it was to me, and why it would matter to me personally. I also wanted to look at the other side, and not just accuse them of having beliefs or ideas different from mine, but see if they had beliefs or values that were the same as mine. Actually, I wanted to flip it a little, and put myself in the shoes of the said that I typically disagree with. If any common ground is ever going to happen in this country, I feel we need to understand what the other side is actually saying, and what is really underneath the initial reaction of this is right or wrong. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sheri, there is quite a bit of humor in Kingdom City. Do you see this as a comedy? SHERI WILNER: I think it is both. For me, comedy and drama and tragedy are interchangeable. Laughter through tears always feels right for me. Basically, what I wanted to show, and I think what is effective about this production is that the first act feels very much like we are in the world of a comedy. Once The Crucible is canceled in this community, the students are offered no other choice but to enact The Crucible in their own lives. The second act of the play actually becomes much more darker and serious, as if The Crucible is happening in real life since it is not allowed to happen on the states. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I understand some of the tension in the play, some of the opposite sides are actually explored by a married couple, one that believes one way and another who believes another. In this production, that married couple is played by a married couple is that right? SHERI WILNER: Yes, it makes a very rich. Actors identify with their roles, and they need to understand the point of view of the character that they are portraying. I think that is happened with our actors as well. They sort of talk about their character being right and the other being wrong. But I sort of took Arthur Miller's lead. The Crucible is obviously about McCarthy, the witch trials, and other things, but he really tells it through the lens of a very specific marriage. The play ends with an estranged couple reconciling. For me, I thought why not learn from the best, and follow Arthur Miller. Don't just tell a story, but tell a culture that exists within the context of one marriage. They both come to the town and they both have different experiences within the town. She butts up against the youth minister of the local church and has specific ideas about the religious community within the town, but he has a different experience. He becomes invested with maintaining good relations with members of the town. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We talked a few moments ago about what an integral part of American drama The Crucible is. I think part of the power of Kingdom City comes from your choice of using that as the play that provokes controversy. Do you feel, in a sense from the work you have both done, that the country has gone backwards in a way in terms of dealing with controversial issues on stage? SHERI WILNER: I would not want to say backwards. I think what I've been feeling since reading the story in 2006 up to present, things are really bubbling to the surface. It's a way that is terrifying and scary, because I think hatred and prejudice is being expressed. Hopefully it is boiling off, it is rising to the surface. Hopefully it can be dealt with. But it does feel like with a lot of the cancellations, some of the shows being performed feel so benign. I think people who are against certain issues in certain groups of people are feeling more free to talk about what they dislike. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there. Kingdom City is currently running at the La Jolla Playhouse through October 5. Thank you both very much.
The La Jolla Playhouse production of "Kingdom City" was inspired by a true story: Student productions of "Grease" and "The Crucible" were cancelled in a small town in Missouri, after complaints that student performers were acting out "immoral behavior."
Seeing teenagers take on adult roles in high school plays can range from delightful to cringe worthy. But when those teenage actors grapple with adult themes in school productions, the results can be disturbing for an entire community. Many high school plays across the country have become targets of controversy and censorship.
"Kingdom City," written by Sheri Wilner, explores the tension between artistic freedom and community values.