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Brian Pickett

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Student Play Censored for Being Critical of NYC's School Closure Policy

Posted: 12/24/10 09:16 AM ET

When word came down that school officials would bar the performance of a student play set to perform at Jamaica High School, I was -- as their teacher -- charged with delivering the sad news. Huddled around an old wooden table in the school's library, the young cast reacted with a range of emotions. Some felt despair over the lack of power they seemed to have, others, a deep sense of outrage at not being consulted about the decision.

"Let's go to the press!" said some, realizing they just might have some power after all.

As part of a credit-bearing class at Queensborough Community College, students from Jamaica High School and Queens Collegiate, a smaller school within the same building, spent the fall semester reading and discussing the classic Greek play Antigone and creating scenes that connected the play to their own experiences. In addition to Sophocles' original text, we also read The Island, a play about two political prisoners who stage Antigone to protest the policies of Apartheid South Africa. Having developed a sense of how theatre can function to highlight social and political concerns, the class began to explore possible ways of adapting Antigone to speak to a contemporary issue. We worked on scenes that dealt with SB1070, the controversial Arizona law, as well as the quality of food in public schools. But as Jamaica High School is slated to be "phased out" by the Department of Education and many students in the class remain upset about about the possibility of losing their school, it wasn't long before students suggested the parallel.

In the story of Antigone, King Creon decrees that one of her brothers shall receive proper burial rights, while the other is "left out for the birds to feed on." Within the school building some of the newer small schools are receiving adequate funding and technology, while the older Jamaica High School has seen its teaching staff cut by 30 percent and struggles with large class sizes and a lack of resources. It seemed to be the perfect fit for our project, with many of the characters in Antigone easily finding their modern equivalent -- Antigone and her sister as students at the two schools, Creon as the School Chancellor, and prophet Tireseus as veteran teacher. Even the Greek chorus manifested itself in the guise of a school security guard, the Department of Education secretary, and two janitors who bicker in the hallway over whether or not the school should be closed.

As the class was made up of students from two schools finding themselves on opposite sides of a heated debate over education "reform," I realized we might be venturing into sensitive territory and took extra care to steer the process in a way that would give equal space to students from both schools. But instead of the expected contentious relationship that exists between the two schools, students were able to work together as one class to examine the situation through the lens of Antigone. In the end, they created a play that did not vilify either school. As an educator -- seeing students engage with a classical text, making direct connections to their own lives and the politics of the times we live in -- it doesn't get any better than this.

Unfortunately, school officials didn't see it that way. Having made no effort to engage with the students themselves and not inquiring about the process that gave rise to the play, it was decided the play could not under any circumstances be performed on school grounds. I was told that the principals from the two schools "had issues with the script and are concerned about implications and negative references to the Department of Education as well as the Chancellor and Mayor."

Life imitates art. In Antigone, King Creon decrees that no one shall bury the body of Polyneices because such an act would challenge the king's authority. Now the students were being told that they couldn't perform their play because it was too critical of the educational establishment.

"What's happened here is that the judge has misjudged everything," said one student upon hearing the news, quoting the original text of Antigone. Other quotations from the play followed:

"There's a general order issued and again it hits us hardest."

"If things have gone this far what is there we can do?"

Not taking the decision sitting down, students decided to demand accountability from their respective principals. They left the table we were huddled around and marched down the hallway to request a joint meeting of everyone involved in the affair. The injustice the students felt stemmed from the fact that no one bothered to talk to them about it.

The incident begs the question, what is really going on here? Did school officials fear that any criticism of educational policy implied or expressed within the play would have cause a riot amongst students? This is hardly a likely scenario. Perhaps the principals feared retribution from the School Chancellor. A bit more likely. Or could it be a deeper fear of young people becoming engaged and empowered to speak about the policies that affect their lives as students?

Whatever the fear is, it is clear that the students have managed to disturb those in power, and as far as theatre is concerned, they should be proud -- historically they are in good company. As celebrated American historian and sometimes playwright Howard Zinn said of the relationship between the artist and society: "It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare say things that no one else will say."

At the moment, students await a reply to their request for a meeting and a chance to tell their side of the story. We also hope to perform the play at an alternate venue. Meanwhile you can read the script they developed at Valerie Strauss's blog, The Answer Sheet.