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Wharton: 'All Shook Up' has nothing on these theater classics

Published January 8, 2013 2:03 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

"We want our drama to be a great experience not just for our students but the theater-goers. We don't want to offend anyone."

That was the explanation that Sandy Riesgraf, a spokeswoman for Jordan School District, gave when asked why Herriman High School's production of the musical All Shook Up was cancelled because one school patron had filed a complaint.

The play based on Elvis Presley's music and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night — which will now be performed with the censorship of a song and some edits — was considered too racy for the tender ears and eyes of high school students.

Goodness. We can't have that. Not in Utah.

What's next? A production of Mary Poppins, where a nanny uses magic to turn two children against their parents, including the mother who is, horror of horrors, out promoting women's liberation, while the father is an evil banker?

The Jordan School District certainly wouldn't want to allow The Sound of Music to be performed. After all, it's about a former nun who teaches children to rebel against their father before deciding to marry him.

Students couldn't consider Man of La Mancha because one of the main characters is a prostitute. Oklahoma is out because there is a suicide. Can't do Camelot because of a love triangle. South Pacific is taboo because cross dressing and an interracial love story might offend some.

Don't even think about Aladdin. The heroine is a rebellious princess in love with a rogue. We can't put thoughts such as that in Utah kids' heads. And Shakespeare? Wow. Stories about incest, rape, murder, suicide and violence. All those works have the potential to offend.

While district leaders are banning or rewriting plays, they might want to look into some of the books in those pesky English classes. Lord of the Flies? To Kill a Mockingbird? The Catcher in the Rye? Animal Farm? Siddhartha? The Scarlet Letter? Brave New World? All have the potential to put all sorts of subversive thoughts into students' minds. Even the Bible's hero is an anti-establishment rebel who helps prostitutes, challenges political and religious leaders and ends up dying a violent death on a cross.

Much of this controversy in Jordan District came due to a few parent complaints about the play Dead Man Walking performed last year by Bingham High. Having seen the fine, thought-provoking movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, I could not disagree more.

Watching the movie was uncomfortable at times because it challenged preconceived notions and turned a killer into a real person worthy of some sympathy, not a caricature. It blew up stereotypes.

Education will at times make us all uncomfortable because it challenges us to think.

When I attended the University of Utah during the late '60s and early '70s during the Vietnam War protests and sexual revolution, nearly every belief I held dear was challenged by professors, movies, literature, theater, friends and even the liberal priest at the Newman Center. I discarded the beliefs I couldn't defend and held on even more strongly to the ones that stood up to a trial by fire. We weren't told what to think, we were taught how to think.

Are parents so afraid that they haven't raised their children right that seeing a cross dresser, hearing a bad word or viewing a singer swivel his or her hips suggestively will send them straight to hell? Do they not give their kids credit for having a strong sense of morality and knowing what is right and wrong? Are they so afraid of their children being exposed to a world view different from their own that they will shield students from being challenged? What a boring, dull world that must be.

Wouldn't it be better to attend a challenging play or art exhibit with your high school student and then return home and have a discussion about it?

I get it that some art and literature may be too mature for high school audiences. But, knowing my fair share of teens, there is little if anything in theater and literature that would honestly shock most of them. And I honestly doubt that there is anything in All Shook Up or, for that matter, Dead Man Walking, that is going to send our kids over the edge into a life of debauchery.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton