Play At Hartford High School Draws Little Protest After Previous Walkout
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
October 21, 2011
HARTFORD —— Students at the fictional Heartsville High were mired in controversy.
The teens had produced a school musical on heterosexuals in the military, a topic so taboo in their "fairy tale" society — where gays are in the norm — that a single guy-girl kiss in the play ignited community outrage.
"Never in Heartsville has there been a musical so utterly offensive and depraved," said the lesbian character Roberta onstage at Hartford Public High School Friday, reciting a newspaper article during a performance of the real-life, controversial musical named "Zanna, Don't!"
"Next you're gonna tell me that Tom Jones is straight," one farmer tells his boyfriend in the next scene. There is a pause. Then panic. "Tom Jones is straight? Gah-dang!"
The line drew some chuckles in the school auditorium, where roughly 400 students watched the anti-bullying musical that a week earlier spurred a walkout and national notoriety. Leadership Greater Hartford's Quest program partnered with the nonprofit True Colors to produce the play at Hartford High to promote tolerance for gay youth.
But last Friday, within the first half-hour of the opening performance, a few dozen teenagers in the school's nursing and law and government academies headed to the exits after seeing two of the male actors kiss.
Major media outlets such as the Huffington Post and the Guardian of London wrote about the incident this week. Readers from around the world battled each other in online comments over who was right. The conservative Family Institute of Connecticut sent an email blast criticizing the school for what it considered "forced pro-gay indoctrination."
For the second and final performance for students this Friday, freshmen needed a parental permission slip to watch, and half — about 130 — brought one back with a yes. Sophomores, juniors and seniors in the school's Engineering and Green Technology Academy had the chance to stay in their classrooms, but most headed to the auditorium.
When the Heartsville High quarterback kissed the popular chess champion, Mike, playful hoots rang out. Three boys immediately got out of their seats and started to walk out, although one seemed to reconsider after a quiet talk with a school staffer.
Throughout the musical, many students cheered and applauded for both same-sex and heterosexual displays of affection. Some expressed "awws" for the gay Zanna, a fairy godfather unlucky in love. Meanwhile, two students — a boy and a girl — canoodled in the back row.
Courter Simmons, an actor from the musical "Jersey Boys," now on stage at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, was also in the audience to "show my support," he said, after hearing about the controversy in the news.
Before the performance, Executive Principal Jack Baldermann gave a stern talk in which he demanded students' respect for the actors on stage. For many of the teenagers, Baldermann said later, this was likely the first time they had seen live theater.
"We know there's a lot of attention here on Hartford High. … This is a time to enjoy, to learn, and to observe," Baldermann said. "We conduct ourselves in a certain way. … There are some things here that are of an adult nature. We treat you like the young adults that you are."
Afterward, about 100 students stayed for a question-and-answer session with performers such as Justin Brown, 17, of Hartford, who played the character of Mike.
Brown, an openly gay senior at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, admitted that performing at a Hartford public high school "is the scariest thing to do because it is such a mixed reaction."
Ilan McDonald, a junior in the school's Law and Government Academy, attended the opening performance and watched the musical again on Friday.
"I really thought it would be more unruly," McDonald said of the audience. And while the 17-year-old believed the musical triggered a good debate over tolerance, he wasn't expecting a massive shift in attitudes at the school.
"When you have great friends, that's about all you need," said McDonald, who also is gay. "High school is still high school, but if it changes a little, it changes a little."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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