Musical About Homosexuality And Prejudice Stirs Range Of Student Reactions
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
October 16, 2011
HARTFORD —— Before the afternoon ended, a parent had stormed into the Hartford Public High School main office with a Bible, pointing out sections that condemn homosexuality as a sin.
A couple of others had taken their teenage children out of school early. Adam Johnson, principal of Hartford High's Law and Government Academy, said his office phone was ringing. A lot.
The commotion started in the school auditorium sometime after 1 p.m. Friday.
For a second, several hundred students saw two guys kiss.
The peck on the lips was shared between actors in a musical called "Zanna, Don't!" about a reverse world in which straight people are outcasts and the most popular boy in school is the flamboyant star of the chess team. Preceding the shrieks, the chess player admits to liking the lowly football captain, who turns out to be a closet heterosexual.
Members of Leadership Greater Hartford's Quest, a program for professionals that develops leadership skills, put forth "Zanna" as an anti-bullying community service project that helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
In a partnership with the nonprofit True Colors, one Quest team raised $10,000 to show the musical three times at Hartford High this month. The Knox Foundation and the Samuel Roskin Trust at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving gave sponsorship money. Students from area high schools and Trinity College are the actors.
"It's not an easy subject to approach, so we're trying to make it easy for school administrators, local nonprofits, community groups," said Louise Provenzano, a marketing and strategy consultant in the Quest program. The message for the Hartford teenagers is "diversity, inclusiveness, compassion."
Friday's opening performance was reserved for students in the law and government and nursing academies. Many settled into their seats and tried to listen to the musical's dialogue and glittery songs, despite competing chatter in the back. "I like that scarf!" one boy shouted at the chess king.
Then the actors kissed and a piercing clamor rang through the auditorium. There were screams and loud voices and a bit of feigned or real disgust. Dozens of students, mostly male and a few in their Owls football jerseys, hurried out of their rows and walked out. A few jumped over seats to leave.
Oneida Fernandez watched them head toward the exit.
"To me, people are people," said Fernandez, a 17-year-old law and government student. "We're human beings. … I don't discriminate."
As for her classmates, she said, "They don't understand men kissing men."
Johnson and David Chambers, principal of the nursing academy, said the students had heard ahead of time that there might be same-sex affection in the play. Some asked to be excused. Chambers considered sending an opt-out letter to parents but decided against it.
In health care, said Chambers, they will have to treat people who are different from them. They will need a sense of empathy toward gays and lesbians, or at least exposure to that which makes them uncomfortable.
"Our kids are not there yet," Chambers said.
Teachers, administrators and a football coach had to keep the teens who walked out from leaving the school building. A few students chose to return to the auditorium to finish watching the musical. No one was forced.
"Even though it's kind of chaotic, kind of wild and crazy, I see it as very successful," Chambers said. "Our kids never deal with this, they keep it inside, and that's that nervous energy. That's why they walked out."
A performance for Hartford High's freshmen and students in the engineering and green technology academy is planned for Friday, Oct. 21. There also will be a free showing for the public at 7:30 p.m. that day.
Johnson expected there to be debate among students who stayed to watch the entire musical and those who refused. Already, he said, there is "tension" at the school over LGBT tolerance. Students jokingly refer to his academy as the "lesbian and gay academy" because of the active Gay-Straight Alliance.
"This is as important of a topic to discuss as anything in math, anything in social studies," Johnson said. "I'm completely glad that we did it."
So were Dineily Vargas and Angel Ayala, both 17, 11th-graders in the law and government academy and members of the alliance. The gay characters on stage drew cheers from the scores of students who stayed until the end. Vargas said she noticed classmates who previously expressed homophobic remarks suddenly proclaiming that gay people should be accepted.
"I think it opened a lot of people's eyes. … This school never really had anything like this happen," Vargas said. "I'm still happy. It was wonderful."
"The only part I hated," Ayala said, "was when some people left."
To reserve free tickets for the public performance of "Zanna, Don't!" or for information on bringing the play to a school or community group, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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