After debate over First Amendment, city backs off plan to restrict westside theater to ‘family-friendly’ plays

Utah Repertory Theater was told this month that the content of its plays didn’t suit the city-run theater’s new mission.

| Courtesy Utah Repertory Theater Company presents "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" through May 7 at the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City has decided it won’t restrict the types of plays allowed at its westside community center after signaling this month a local theater company’s 2018 plays didn’t fit a new child-friendly mission.

The decision sparked a debate over the First Amendment, as Sorenson Unity Center has never filtered the kinds of plays put on at its black box theater in the building the city has overseen since it opened in 2008.

City officials met Wednesday with representatives from Utah Repertory Theater and agreed the company could present two plays next year that were initially denied because of their mature content. They’ll also work to include a forum to add an educational component to Utah Repertory’s plays at the center.

“It’s a little bit of an experiment,” said Utah Repertory’s artistic director, Johnny Hebda. “Doing these public forums and opening up dialogue to a diverse community is what we’ll strive to do.”

Hebda’s group was told last week that Sorenson had reviewed synopses for “Disgraced” and “Straight,” and the plays weren’t welcome.

The Sorenson center’s creation was rooted in a First Amendment battle. The Mormon church gave the land underneath the facility to the city in exchange for ending the public easement on the section of Main Street that the faith purchased and turned into a plaza between the LDS Temple and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The LDS Church controls behavior and speech on the plaza.

The community center was recently placed under the city’s Youth and Family Division in its public services department. Kim Thomas, the division’s program manager, decided the center would have a mission that matched the division’s, city spokesman Matthew Rojas said.

“Disgraced” is Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that explores Islamophobia post 9/11. The 2012 play “Straight” explores sexual identity. Both are now welcome at Sorenson Unity Center. “Straight” will debut in February and “Disgraced” will open in April, Hebda said.

“The conversation was definitely around content,” Hebda said of Wednesday’s meeting. “We wanted to basically open up a forum of some sort discussing the topics and making those available to the community on some of the subject matters being dealt with like Islamophobia or homophobia.”

The city will continue discussing what the future will look like for the center under the Youth and Family Division.

“It’s not just Salt Lake City that is dealing with how do you balance free speech in the community,” Rojas said. “I think what Kim and her team have been talking to Utah Rep about is really an elegant solution to this.”

Utah Repertory can work with Sorenson to book the first six months of next year at the black box theater.

“It’s hard to say if this will be a permanent-type of arrangement,” Hebda said. “It’ll be interesting to see in six months if this arrangement is working for the future or if in six months there’s a new policy that we need.”