Canceled school play about Iraq brings out real drama
Connecticut students find themselves in the national spotlight when their principal shuts down their play.
Stone-faced and grim, six boys from Wilton High School are marching in formation, stomping out the ominous rhythm of foot soldiers, and saluting from their chests. Together, they stop to shout: "For all the free people that still protest, you're welcome! You're welcome!"Skip to next paragraph
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It's a defiant rap, first written by U.S. Marines in Kuwait to taunt those who protested the first Gulf War, and now incorporated into a spring play, "Voices in Conflict," a dramatic series of monologues taken from interviews and letters from real soldiers in combat. This scene, however, has the most complicated stage directions, and Courtney Stack, a junior in charge of the choreography, is barking out orders, showing the boys how to move their feet and swing their shoulders as the pounding march becomes a flowing hip-hop groove.
But the rap scene has a deeper meaning for the Connecticut students, eight boys and eight girls, members of an advanced drama class who have found themselves in a bewildering maelstrom of wartime controversy.
What should have been a simple hour-long spring play, like thousands of others during the season of senioritis and proms, instead has become a media-driven touchstone, not only of the rife divisions in the country but of the free-speech rights – and intellectual abilities – of high school students as they explore the complexities and horrors of war.
In March, the principal of Wilton High, Timothy Canty, canceled the production of the play after one student – the student who contributed the antiprotest rap, in fact – and her mother complained that the script was unbalanced and disrespectful to those in Iraq. Early versions of the script, based entirely on the words of real soldiers in combat, included profane language, graphic descriptions of violence, and a moral ambiguity that seemed to question the justness of the war. Mr. Canty felt its performance would hurt families that had lost loved ones or had family members serving overseas.
The cancellation, however, only served to draw the attention of national media, prominent playwrights, and a host of others concerned that a student play would be censored for critiquing the war in Iraq. The controversy has assured it a larger, broader audience than the school stage would have: A number of professional theater companies are hosting the student production, including The Public Theater in Manhattan (June 15), one of the more renowned venues in New York.
"This entire thing has been completely overwhelming and completely surprising," says Seth Koproski, a junior in the play. "We thought we would go up, do our monologues, and that's it. We never asked for a media firestorm; we didn't want a controversy. We just wanted an engaging play that we were interested in."
Early in the semester, Bonnie Dickinson, who teaches the advanced drama class, suggested her students do something different. She'd been reading "In Conflict: Iraq Veterans Speak Out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive," a book of interviews with veterans. She thought the material might be perfect for the stage. She also showed her students documentaries about Iraq war veterans to give them a sense of how real soldiers looked and spoke. The students quickly agreed to the project, and set out to research more sources to put together a play. They found soldiers' blogs, letters published in newspapers, as well as the story of Maj. Ladda "Tammy" Duckworth, the Army National Guard pilot who lost her legs in combat, and later ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress.