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McEntee: Message to bluenoses – Art is supposed to shake us up

Published January 5, 2013 11:27 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When I was in high school theater, we staged "The Lion in Winter," a play that features treachery, infidelity, captivity and some of the most eloquent language I'd ever heard.

It had been edited for a high school production, of course. But the word "ass" remained in an exchange between two characters:

"I am a king. I am no man's 'boy.' "

"Because you put your ass on purple cushions?"

The administration made us change it to "bottom."

Sings, doesn't it?

Last week, we learned that someone objected to a Herriman High production of a fluffy little musical called "All Shook Up," loosely based on Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." Trouble was, it included, among other things, a girl masquerading as a boy, and the play was briefly canceled.

A Jordan School District spokeswoman said that while school plays should be great experiences for students and theatergoers, "We don't want to offend anyone."

Well, plays, books, poetry, television and films are supposed to shake us up. That's the nature of storytelling, said Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell, an assistant theater professor at the University of Utah.

"We have these characters that walk around, and we sort of live vicariously through them. They are not us. That's their deal," she said. "They say and do and think things that are objectionable to our own views.

"In my mind, that's why we go to the theater, watch films," Cheek-O'Donnell said, "to understand someone else, otherness, and develop empathy for other ways of seeing the world and have a dialogue."

When I see a play or a movie, read a book or a poem or even the news, I expect to learn things, to be challenged and angered and sometimes brought to tears.

The film "Lincoln" reflects the United States at war with itself. There are mounds of bodies after battles, political machinations in the White House and Congress, vicious racism, marital strife and the death of the nation's greatest president.

It is art's way of putting us in a time and circumstance we know of, but rarely so viscerally.

Recently I reread To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1960 novel set in Alabama and featuring a white lawyer representing a black man accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. But it was about so much more: a father's love for his children, their fascination with a mysterious neighbor, the ways of the townspeople and the racists who denied justice to an innocent man.

As I did at 14, I cried at the end. And if it's not required reading in every high school, it should be.

As Cheek-McDonnell said, many Utah communities are conservative, perhaps given to believing that only good examples should be shown in art and literature (though that would eliminate many sacred writings). But, she added, seeing the value of flawed humans going through their struggles is a way to interpret and learn from their experience.

Besides, high school kids almost undoubtedly know a lot more about the world than their parents may think. They study literature, history, math and all kinds of subjects. They watch TV and see movies. Most important, they look at and listen to one another, every one a different and often puzzling human. And who's more judgmental than a high school kid?

"All Shook Up" will be performed at Herriman High after all, with slight modifications.

This much is certain: Everyone involved in this unnecessary affair will have learned something and, quite likely, were offended.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.