Ponnada: The show must go on

BY SRI PONNADA | JULY 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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The drama club at Ottumwa High School raised some eyebrows when the members decided they wanted to stage The Laramie Project, a play by Moisés Kaufman about the real-life challenges faced by the town of Laramie, Wy., after a student from the University of Wyoming was beaten to death because he was gay.

Their plan was thwarted by the school superintendent, who was concerned about the play’s “intense adult subject matter.” Such a response for the administration is more or less understandable. School plays tend not to deal with subject matter quite so dark as hate crime.

But Ottumwa High’s administration apparently has various anti-bullying initiatives that are really pushed in order tackle the problem of bullying. The message of The Laramie Project is ultimately to illustrate the corrosive effects of bullying and hate, so it makes little sense for the administration to nix the play with “subject matter” that is in sync with such an anti-bullying message.

The play is heavy, but so is the reality of bullying, which Iowa’s students are all too familiar with. A recent Iowa Youth Survey of students in grades six, eight, and 11 shows that 50 percent of the participants reported to have been bullied at school in some way.

So, I don’t see what the problem is about a group of proactive (and, obviously, understanding) high-school students wanting to put on a performance to draw attention to an issue that affects countless young boys and girls every single day. Their intentions seem pure; they don’t seem to be particularly interested in vulgarity or shock value.

After all, bullying isn’t just some concocted aspect of The Laramie Project. It really happened. And similar bullying exists in real life — and it’s a pretty heavy subject matter, if you ask me. If the Ottumwa High drama group wants to try to take a stand and say something substantial, rather than turn in another unremarkable amateur rendition of Aresenic and Old Lace or Guys and Dolls, then it should be allowed to do so.

It’s important to remember how rare is the chance to speak to an entire community at once. For the kids at Ottumwa High — in virtually any high school, for that matter — their school is really the only outlet they have access to. It isn’t very likely that the drama club has all the necessary resources in order to put on their own community theater production.

Furthermore, schools have a responsibility to educate children on how to deal with prevalent social problems — like bullying — and foster an environment where such hate isn’t allowed to take root.

How will kids ever learn if we keep sugarcoating the truth because we think it’s too intense for them to handle? Or that a family crowd wouldn’t approve? It’s not as though they don’t face these issues in their lives. We should be proud of those drama-club kids for wanting to tackle such a heavy subject on their own. They seek to start an important conversation about how we treat one another; such a conversation should be allowed to take place.

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