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Censorship is alive and well on American school stages

Freedom of speech is very much in the news these days, so an article in American Theatre with the headline “Who Cares about Censorship on School Stages?” particularly caught my attention.

According to the writer, Howard Sherman, there seems to be more censorship of high school (and some college) theater than ever before.

Such shows as “Rent,” “Spamalot” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” have received a thumbs down from the powers that be. Suppression of theater can occur locally, too, often self-imposed.

As some of you know, I have a theater company, The Outrageous Fortune Company, which produced 50 contemporary plays during a span of 17 years at the then-named Queens Theatre in the Park. (The “in the Park” has now vanished.) If you haven’t heard of my troupe, that’s because it’s been out of action since 2010, still searching for a new venue. Many, if not most, of the plays that I produced have not been performed by other local groups, even though they were well-reviewed in Manhattan, due in part, I suspect, to their content – provocative themes, rough language including profanity, and sexual situations.

In other words, all the things you can find on cable (and even broadcast) television, on video games, and in the movies. Ironically, the graphic violence so often depicted on the big screen, enhanced by computer technology, seldom raises any protest or concern.

Most theaters in Queens are found in houses of worship, and that often creates an atmosphere not conducive to the work of contemporary playwrights. Some years ago a local group wanted to produce the play “Other People’s Money” (also made into a movie) at a church in Jackson Heights. However, it was deemed unacceptable at that venue, even though, I can assure you, the material would get no more than a PG rating.

“Joe Turner” was deemed objectionable because of the use of the “n-word.” Never mind that the play was authored by the late black playwright August Wilson, one of the most acclaimed of modern American writers. Or that the racist pejorative can be heard in “12 Years a Slave,” Best Picture Oscar winner in 2013, in the current “Selma,” among others, and in literature, including Mark Twain’s masterpiece “Huckleberry Finn.”

“Rent,” one of the longest running Broadway musicals, rubbed some the wrong way due to gay and drug-use themes. Now I don’t say that anything goes — even free speech has its limits — but context is crucial. Censorship is never a good thing, and political correctness must yield to freedom of expression. Good art can and should be controversial and challenging.

This is award season in the movie and TV business. Stars and celebrities get a chance to dress up, and to thank everybody if they win something. It’s all very subjective and the televised events seem endless, but it does help to get us through the winter.

One award that you local theater people should be aware of comes from the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation. Founded in 2004, the IT Awards recognize excellence in Off-Off-Broadway theater. In 2014, the award for Outstanding Production of a Musical went to the Astoria Performing Arts Center for its version of “Allegro.”

APAC leads the way in Queens, but many more of our groups should enter the competition.

Go to www.nyita‌wards.com to find out how your production can be eligible.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBHOF‌[email protected]‌il.com.

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