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!"

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.

"We all got really involved," says Taylor Telyan, a junior who researched her part from the blog of an Iraqi civilian. "I can't think of a single day we don't learn something new. Even now, people are coming into class with information, or we'll e-mail Bonnie, even if it's just a sentence from the news – and that's one of the reasons we got so upset when it was canceled. We got so involved, we did all the research, and this was something we did ourselves."

But, as many of the students point out, it was not simply a research project on a current "issue." Last September, Nicholas Madaras, who had joined the Army after graduating from Wilton High in 2005, was killed by a roadside bomb.

"A lot of the soldiers in the play are 18, and a lot of us are, and so it really made it real to us that that could be us over there fighting in Iraq," says Erin Clancy, who plays Army Reserve Sgt. Lisa Haynes, a soldier wrestling with the emotional toll her tour in Iraq took. "It's different than hearing about 'soldiers.' I've always looked at soldiers as 'old people.' But they're our age. And that's what I found moving about the whole experience – I feel they're my friends, that they could be any one of us."

During the breaks of this recent evening's rehearsal for their run at professional theaters, the teens mill about in baggy cargo shorts, tattered baseball caps, and printed T-shirts. Some talk about the impending SATs, others about the controversy their play has stirred up. But as they perform their monologues – at this stage, still holding a script and cheating now and then, as Ms. Dickinson shouts instructions from seats above the stage – they express the pathos of war-ravaged soldiers.

Tara Ross, playing Major Duckworth, sits on stage, and projects with sober confidence: "I am not going to dishonor the effort in saving my life by saying 'Woe is me, I got no legs.' Well, I got one knee. There are guys who have none, guys who are blind. I have my arms, my face, my brain. This is a pretty good life I have compared to what it could be." Tara pauses, then smiles. "Plus they make prosthetic high heels."

Other monologues describe soldiers wrestling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, questioning the reasons they're in Iraq, or lamenting the horrors they see. In one monologue particularly bothersome to the school's administrators, a soldier describes shooting a veiled woman by mistake.

In addition to the script's use and attribution of such scenes, the principal felt these were in a dramatic context that sensationalized atrocities, and therefore lacked balance and perspective.

While students recognize the script brings out the negative aspects of the war, they don't want to describe it as antiwar. "It's not an issue of liberal and conservative," says Tara. "We're not all liberals, and we have different views on the war, even if we see that there are no easy answers." Another cast member, Devon Fontaine, adds, "A lot of things in life are hazy, and we've really learned this as we've done the research for the play.... But I think it's the highest honor we can give the troops by letting their voices be heard."

Canty's cancellation of the spring performance, however, led to an explosion of attention. The National Coalition Against Censorship and the Dramatists Guild urged the administration to allow the students to perform the play, unedited, in a letter signed by 33 prominent playwrights, including Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, and Marsha Norman. Music Theatre International, a New York agency that licenses most student productions, awarded the Wilton students a "Courage in Theater" award.

"Now we're taking it to New York, and I think that will be really great," says Sarah Anderson, a senior playing Sgt. Kelly Dougherty. "But it's still so frustrating that we can't perform it here in school, which is what we wanted to do from the beginning."

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