High school play canceled over possible objections to gay content

Drama teacher at a Newport Beach high school says the principal shut down his production of 'Rent' because of its gay characters. District officials say the principal only asked to read the script.

February 18, 2009|Susannah Rosenblatt

Drama students at Corona del Mar High School were excited to push the envelope with a spring production of the Bohemian love story "Rent."

But the drama teacher at the Newport Beach school says the principal told him to cancel the show because she disapproved of the gay characters in the musical. Fal Asrani, the school's principal, disputes that she pulled the plug on the production, saying that she only asked to review the script, according to district officials.

Now, amid growing backlash and consternation from some students and members of the gay community, the actors at Corona del Mar High are grudgingly preparing for a very different show: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The drama teacher said it's a safer choice and one sure to pass muster with his boss.

Ron Martin said he chose "Rent," the story of artists struggling in New York City, for the spring musical because he hoped it would be a vehicle for teaching tolerance after overhearing students using homosexual slurs.

"My responsibility as a drama teacher is to expose my students to a variety of different types of plays," Martin said. At a recent meeting with Martin and a union representative, Asrani shut down the plans for "Rent," saying that she needed to review the script because of "prostitution and homosexuality," Martin said, adding that there is no prostitution in the musical.

Asrani did request a script, a common practice in the school district, but was not provided one, said Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss. The principal has discretion over anything that occurs on campus, but she "emphatically denies" canceling the show, Boss said; that call was made by the drama teacher.

"We feel confident at the role the principal played," Boss said, adding that district officials will follow up on the matter when students and staff return next week from a break.

Asrani "gets to the bottom" of things, said Dana Black, president of the Newport-Mesa Board of Education. The district, Black says, does not shy away from edgy subject matter, but, "we don't want anybody feeling alienated."

And it makes sense for a principal to review potentially sensitive material, Black said. "I'm just kind of surprised, to be honest with you, that there was any controversy."

Asrani did not return calls seeking comment; Martin stands by his account of the meeting.

Martin said that in the five years he's worked at the school, Asrani had never asked to review a script before a production. The teacher had already discussed the abridged school edition of "Rent" -- which cuts out same-sex contact -- with actors' parents and says none had a problem with the material. And previous shows such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" portrayed adult themes without raising administrators' eyebrows.

A parent complaint about this winter's production of "No Reservations," which included light profanity, a kissing scene and a gay character's monologue, prompted Asrani to attempt -- unsuccessfully -- to edit the show after it had opened, according to Martin and students in the department.

Upon hearing the news that their spring musical was canned, drama students, about 20 of whom had already been cast for roles in "Rent," were flabbergasted.

"We've all been angry," said Tim Dyess, 17, president of the Drama Club. "The reason why it got canceled was completely ridiculous."

He and other students have plans to distribute fliers and buttons and post videos criticizing what they view as a discriminatory move. Some have called the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alumni were tipped off to the controversy after an anonymous student letter blasting Asrani circulated and was posted on the gay blog Queerty late last week.

Autumn Haile, 24, a 2003 Corona del Mar graduate and drama department alumna, counted gay students as some of her closest high school friends. "To think that they would feel unwelcome there now is what angers me so much about this," she said.

"We're not trying to preach to an audience -- we just wanted to do something that was a little different," said Monique Danser, 18, a Corona del Mar High senior active in the drama department. "I think it speaks a lot for the student body in a positive way, saying that we're not people who are going to take this lying down."

Yet what causes an uproar in one town might pass unnoticed in another, said David Dingman, president of the Drama Teachers Assn. of Southern California. School-suitable content is "something the community has to wrestle with," he said. "There is no one-size-fits-all in this case."

At the very least, Martin considers the hullabaloo "probably the greatest civics lesson" his students will ever have.


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