Last Sunday night, as millions of Americans tuned in to the two Tonys — the final episode of "The Sopranos," to see whether Tony Soprano lived or died, and the Tony Awards, celebrating the best in American theater — actor Stanley Tucci (who played "Nigel" in "The Devil Wears Prada") was in an off-Broadway theater, the Culture Project, watching high-school students perform a play about war.
The production, "Voices in Conflict," moved the audience to tears, ending with a standing ovation for the teenage actors, still reeling from a controversy that had propelled them onto the New York stage. Their high school principal had banned the play.
Bonnie Dickinson has been teaching theater at Wilton High School in Connecticut for 13 years. She and her students developed the idea of a play about Iraq, initially inspired by the Sept. 3, 2006, death of Wilton High graduate Nicholas Madaras from an improvised explosive device blast in Baqubah, Iraq. The play uses real testimonials from soldiers, from their letters, blogs and taped interviews, and Yvonne Latty’s book "In Conflict," with the students acting the roles. The voices of Iraqis are also included.
In mid-March, after students spent months preparing the play, the school administration canceled it. Superintendent Gary Richards wrote: "The student performers directly acting the part of the soldiers ... turns powerful material into a dramatic format that borders on being sensational and inappropriate. We would like to work with the students to complete a script that fully addresses our concerns." (The students have modified the script; they perform Richards’ letter, its cold, condescending bureaucratese in stark relief with the play’s passionate eyewitness testimonials.)
The story struck a chord with Tucci. He was already producing a video piece about his high school alma mater, John Jay High School in Cross River, N.Y., where high school girls were suspended for performing an excerpt of Eve Ensler’s play "The Vagina Monologues." Their crime: uttering the word "vagina" after being warned not to.
Following the performance of "Voices in Conflict," Tucci participated in a public conversation with the student actors, noting that, "Cross River and Wilton are only 15 miles apart. There’s obviously something in the water."
After The New York Times published an article on the Wilton High censorship scandal, Ira Levin, the author of "The Stepford Wives," wrote the paper a letter: "Wilton, Conn., where I lived in the 1960s, was the inspiration for Stepford, the fictional town I later wrote about in 'The Stepford Wives.' I’m not surprised ... that Wilton High School has a Stepford principal. Not all the Wilton High students have been Stepfordized. The ones who created and rehearsed the banished play 'Voices in Conflict' are obviously thoughtful young people with minds of their own."
Wilton High School Principal Timothy Canty was quoted in The New York Times article saying that the play might "hurt Wilton families 'who had lost loved ones or who had individuals serving as we speak,' and that there was not enough classroom and rehearsal time to ensure it would provide 'a legitimate instructional experience for our students.' "
I asked the student actors about their opportunities to discuss the war at school. Jimmy Presson, 16, said his U.S. history class has a weekly assignment to bring in a current event news item, with one caveat: "We are not allowed to talk about the war while discussing current events." The students said they can discuss the war in a Middle Eastern studies class, but, they said, it is not being taught this year. "Theater Arts II was the only class in the school where students were discussing the war," Dickinson said. Jimmy added, "We also get to speak about it with the military recruiters who are always at school."
Following Sunday’s production, Allan Buchman, the Culture Project’s artistic director, summed up, "What we saw tonight was the reason to have a theater."
With the evening winding down, the kids were already talking about their next performance, this one at the famed Public Theater, another prominent New York institution, which will be attended by some of the soldiers the student actors play. Jimmy said: "It means a lot that we can share their stories. We got word from India, Japan ... and even Iowa." The audience laughed. It was getting late. As the students packed up to head home to Connecticut, they wondered if they would ever be allowed to perform the play where it all began, at Wilton High.