“Do you think they’ll let us put the award in the trophy case?” student actor Seth Koproski asked Bonnie Dickinson, his theater teacher at Wilton High School, after a June 15 production of Voices in Conflict at the Public Theater in New York City. The award, for “Courage in Theatre,” came from Music Theatre International, and Wilton High (in Wilton, Connecticut) probably won’t display it alongside its basketball and soccer trophies.
Dickinson and her students won the prize for performing a play the school administration had specifically forbidden them to do. When principal Tim Canty looked at early drafts of the script of Voices in Conflict, which is based on letters, interviews and blog posts of soldiers in Iraq, he canceled the show, citing concerns about bias, plagiarism, insufficient context and potentially offensive material. Dickinson and her class started to work on a less controversial play.
But once the New York Times publicized the story, prominent First Amendment attorneys, anticensorship advocacy groups and some of New York’s most renowned theaters started calling. Dickinson and her students returned to Voices in Conflict, ultimately incorporating the story of the school’s cancellation into the script. By the end of its run, the sixteen young actors, ages 14 to 18, will have presented the play at the Vineyard Theatre, the Culture Project and the Public Theater, all in New York, and at the Fairfield Theatre Company in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Principal Canty claimed that the play might offend Wilton families “who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak,” and worried that there wouldn’t be sufficient teaching and rehearsal time to insure “a legitimate instructional experience for our students.” Wilton junior Gabby Alessi-Friedlander, whose brother is serving in Iraq and who complained to Canty about the script, told Good Morning America, “I at least view educating people as presenting both sides to a story and not just reciting word for word all the negatives. I’m all for showing all the sides, but not just one.”
In response to these criticisms, the National Coalition Against Censorship reminded Wilton Schools superintendent Gary Richards that the use of “found text”–journal entries, letters, blog entries–for the production of theater is a well-accepted practice, used in works from My Name Is Rachel Corrie to The Laramie Project. The Stamford Advocate opined, “It’s not the job of a play to present all sides of any issue. Art often takes a position.” Critic Robert Fisk marshaled Shakespeare’s use of violence and gore as evidence that Voices in Conflict couldn’t possibly have gone afoul of mainstream theater’s norms. A New York Times letter writer pointed out that military recruiters at Wilton High don’t address “amputation, post-traumatic stress or death statistics.” Student actor Cameron Nadler, a junior, said, “Most of this cast can vote in the next election. If they don’t think we’re mature enough to do a play about Iraq, why should we vote?”
But the question of just how many sides this story has may perhaps be the crux of the matter. After the show, I asked cast member Natalie Kropf, 18, who played Army Spc. Wilfredo Perez Jr., a Norwalk, Connecticut, resident who was killed in Iraq in 2003, whether she thought any of the story-gathering had been done with an antiwar eye. She replied, “It was harder to find positive things about the war than negative things about the war. That might just be because soldiers feel that way.” In response to Canty’s charge of bias, Dickinson and her cast added a monologue by L. Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot (and former Democratic Congressional candidate) who lost both legs in the war and still maintains, “This is a pretty good life compared to what it could be.” But when senior Tara Ross, playing Duckworth, brightly announces, “Plus, they make prosthetic high heels,” it’s cold comfort for an audience that later hears Navy veteran Charles Anderson, played by James Presson, asking, “If I have nothing to be ashamed of, why can’t I sleep?”
When Army Capt. Patrick Murphy (played by Christopher Kozlowski) describes training soldiers–“I [told] them about the seven army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless services, honor, integrity and personal courage”–we don’t disbelieve his side of the story. It’s just that the other monologues have revealed how hollow those values have become. Cpl. Sean Huze (Seth Koproski) tells the audience, “Taking fire from that general direction there are fifty fucking people there, it’s one guy shooting at us, you know we can’t find that one guy…Fucking kill everything…lay fire down there–suppression fire–area target…Blanket the fucking area…It works.”
In 1969, the Supreme Court decided in Tinker v. Des Moines that public school students were legally entitled to wear black armbands in a show of opposition to the Vietnam War. That ruling has historically limited public school administrators’ ability to curtail students’ nondisruptive political expression. But students’ and teachers’ rights are steadily eroding, said Martin Garbus, an attorney who has worked pro bono on Dickinson’s behalf. Because the actors and the director could be understood as representing Wilton High School, school administrators could interfere both with off- and on-campus presentations of the play. Wilton High School is holding disciplinary hearings for Dickinson on counts including plagiarism, attempting to present a biased play and working on a piece not in keeping with “school values.” Though Dickinson receives many supportive calls from other high school teachers, she fears for her job.
Since the production of the play, Dickinson has sought out contact with veterans, particularly those depicted in the play. Standing ovations and student actors seeking autographs greeted the several veterans present in the audience at the Public Theater production. When asked how he felt about the students’ portrayal of some of the soldiers’ most pained and private reflections, Charles Anderson, now active in Iraq Veterans Against the War, responded, “I knew they were sincere.” During the talkback session following the June 15 performance, an audience member asked whether war is good for art. “War isn’t good for anything,” dramaturge Willy Holtzman responded later that night. “But war obligates us to make better art.” And perhaps art–in this case, sixteen “kids from Connecticut” on stage–can bring us deeper into the ethical questions posed by war.