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Iowa High School Halts Matthew Shepard Play

Tuesday Jul 23, 2013
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Administrators at a southeast Iowa high school halted plans for a student production of "The Laramie Project," but the show will go on at a local performing arts center.

Ottumwa High School Principal Mark Hanson decided to cancel the performance. Hanson said he agrees with the play’s message, but would rather see more family-friendly productions on the high school stage.

"Could we have done it? Yeah," Hanson said. "We were on the fence with it, but we came to the conclusion that it would be better at a community theater," where it could reach a wider audience and wouldn’t have to be scrubbed of its original R-rated language.

The play was inspired by the events that led to the 1998 murder of a 21-year-old gay man, Matthew Shepard, outside of Laramie. The debate has played out in schools across the country, including West Des Moines’ Valley High School in 2006.

Ottumwa residents are dusting off a similar script seven years later. Alumni have written letters to the Ottumwa Courier. Parents have called the local school board.

Ottumwa High’s administrators hoped to troubleshoot a potential problem before it turned into a bigger ordeal.

The years since the Valley High controversy have seen legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa and other states, and recently the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In Iowa, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn of Primghar, killed himself last year after coming out to his classmates, who had taunted him on Facebook. The documentary "Bully" brought national attention to Sioux City public schools around the same time. After the "Laramie" production at Valley, former Gov. Chet Culver visited the school to sign a bill to ban bullying in all Iowa schools.

Ottumwa students say it’s hard to understand why school administrators wouldn’t want them to produce a play that confronts those issues head-on.

"It doesn’t make any sense," said Jordan Young, a junior in the thespian group. "This is a show that deals specifically with bullying and the outcome that it had on an entire town because of one bullying incident. If they’re trying to get rid of bullying, then why would they say ’no’ to this show?"

Ottumwa resident Pam Schulz, who has nine grandchildren in Ottumwa schools, was relieved to learn that the play will not be a high school production.

"When I saw the article in the paper, I thought, ’Well, that’s certainly the right approach,’" she said. "That’s not a play that should be promoted for any family entertainment. I’m especially concerned about the younger children. The way it’s presented is just not healthy for student entertainment."

Superintendent Davis Eidahl also supported Hanson’s decision.

"We can all agree: It’s an important show for people to see because of its powerful message about the brutality of intolerance and the senselessness of it," he said. "But we want to produce plays that encourage the greatest number of individuals and families to come out and watch."

And that’s where Natalie Saunders disagrees. The drama teacher has taught in Ottumwa for 15 years, directing heavy-hitting works about adultery, religious tolerance and mental health disorders. She coached a shortened, readers-theater version of "The Laramie Project" back in 2001, and her high school students took it to competition without much fuss.

"It isn’t just about the performance," she said. "Theater is a tool for education. I look at: Which shows are my students ready to handle? Who in my program is looking at pursuing theater in the future? You can’t always showcase a student’s strongest talents unless you push them to a new level."

She recruited Dale Dommer, a local theater director, to help with the now-independent play set for October at the Bridge View Center. He wrote a letter to the school board, urging them to overrule the decision to cancel the play.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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