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2007-06-20

War and Censorship at Wilton High: Connecticut High School Students Perform Play on NY Stage After Ban by Principal

Guests

Bonnie Dickinson, has taught theater at Wilton High School in Connecticut for 13 years. She is the director of the play Voices in Conflict.

Jimmy Presson, Wilton High School student. He played Iraq War veteran Charlie Anderson in the play Voices in Conflict.

Courtney Stack, Wilton High School student and choreographer of Voices in Conflict.

Charlie Anderson, member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served in Iraq from March to May of 2003.

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Administrators at Connecticut’s Wilton High School have banned students from performing "Voices in Conflict," a play about the Iraq War, calling it "sensational and inappropriate." We speak with the play’s director, as well as two students involved in the production. We’re also joined by Iraq War veteran Charlie Anderson, whose story is depicted in the play. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the last few weeks, audience members packed into several off-Broadway theaters in New York at the Culture Project, at the Public Theater, to watch the curtain go up on an unusual production: a high school play about war. The play is called Voices in Conflict. It was performed by students from Wilton High School in Connecticut. The reason they were performing it on the New York stage instead of their Connecticut school auditorium — well, their high school principal had banned it.

It all started when Wilton High drama teacher Bonnie Dickinson and her students developed the idea of a play about Iraq. It was initially inspired by the death of Wilton High graduate Nicholas Madaras from an improvised explosive device blast in Baquba last September. The play uses real testimonials from soldiers, from their letters, blogs, taped interviews, and Yvonne Latty’s book In Conflict. The voices of Iraqis are also included.

After students spent months preparing the play, the school administration cancelled 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." Well, the students did change the script. They incorporated his quote in the play.

The controversy propelled Voices in Conflict onto the New York stage, where Wilton High students have performed it several times to standing ovations.

Bonnie Dickinson is the play’s director. She has been teaching at Wilton High for 13 years. She joins us in our firehouse studio, along with Wilton High School students Courtney Stack, who’s the choreographer of the play, and Jimmy Presson, who plays Iraq War veteran Charlie Anderson in the play. In fact, Charlie Anderson, himself, is joining us from a studio in Norfolk, Virginia, member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He served in Iraq from March to May of 2003. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Bonnie, tell us about the origins of the play and why we’re not going to Wilton to see it.

BONNIE DICKINSON: You’re not going to be able to see it in Wilton, because we were not allowed to perform it on the stage in Wilton High School. The school felt that it was too biased and that it was plagiarized, so they did not want to have anything to do with it and did not want —

AMY GOODMAN: Plagiarized?

BONNIE DICKINSON: Yes, that’s one of the allegations, that it was plagiarized, that because they got a very early draft and that draft did not have all the sources cited, because it wasn’t ready to be sourced yet, they decided that it was very bad academic practice and very unbalanced. And they just felt that it was not appropriate for education.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy, talk about what it was like to be on the stage. You played, among others — it’s mainly voices. Describe the format of the play.

JIMMY PRESSON: Well, the format is a reading, not a play. So everyone has their scripts in their hands. Most of the action is stationary, people sitting or standing at the front of the stage reading bits from the different sources in the play, from magazines, from In Conflict or from The Ground Truth, and there are two songs. One is an original song about kids at the Vietnam wall. And another is a rap taken from Joshua Miles, who has his rap posted on Army websites, and that’s the part that’s choreographed.

AMY GOODMAN: Courtney, how did you become involved with the play?

COURTNEY STACK: Well, Bonnie was talking about how she wanted some choreography to go along with this rap, and I basically came up to her and told her that I had a lot of dance experience and had been doing choreography for a long time. And so, she sort of invited me to participate.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Madaras was a Wilton High grad?

BONNIE DICKINSON: He graduated last year and then — or two years ago and went, joined the military. I believe he was recruited. I’m not sure why he joined, but he joined, and was killed in an accident last August.

AMY GOODMAN: IED exploded.

BONNIE DICKINSON: Yeah. And everybody loved this boy. And this is one of the reasons that we thought it might be a very good subject for a class project, because people would be aware of the issue, if for no other reason than we had lost a soldier from our town. That seemed to be the only interest we could glean on the war. It wasn’t being taught in school, particularly, that I knew of, this year. And we just thought it would be a great theater piece to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy, how often do you get to talk about war at school?

JIMMY PRESSON: We very rarely to never talk about the war through the curriculum. In classes in which we discuss current events, we are required to not bring in current events that relate to the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, what do you mean? What about social studies or history?

JIMMY PRESSON: In history classes, the current events that we bring in are — we’ve been instructed to have the articles be unrelated to the war.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re not allowed to talk about war in your history class?

JIMMY PRESSON: We’re not allowed to talk about the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

JIMMY PRESSON: Because it’s too controversial, I guess. Because they don’t want kids arguing in class.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there any class that you can talk about it?

JIMMY PRESSON: We can talk about it a little bit in Middle Eastern studies, a little bit, but it’s not even that much in that class.

BONNIE DICKINSON: That class is not offered.

JIMMY PRESSON: Every year. It’s only offered every other year.

AMY GOODMAN: So this past year, it wasn’t offered?

JIMMY PRESSON: It was not offered this past year.

AMY GOODMAN: So the only class to discuss this was in drama?

JIMMY PRESSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, at the Public Theater, where you performed on Friday night, there were some soldiers in the audience, the soldiers that you, the students, played in this production of Voices in Conflict. We’re joined by Charlie Anderson, as I said, an Iraq War vet, joining us now from Norfolk. Charlie, you were in the audience on Friday night?

CHARLIE ANDERSON: Yes, I was, Amy. It was an excellent performance, and I was very honored to have been there.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experience in Iraq. And Jimmy played you as one of the people. Is that right?

CHARLIE ANDERSON: Yes, Jimmy did an excellent job portraying me. I was there for the invasion from March through May of 2003. And I learned of the play back in March, and I had sent Bonnie and Jimmy a short email just saying that I was honored to be — that my voice was included in their production, and I thanked them for doing it. And I believe I said something about — that I was distressed that it was being banned, because the voices of those of us that have been there are largely silenced. And so it was — yeah, like I said, I was really happy to be able to see the play.

In Iraq, we were pretty much on a constant advance, and I’m not saying — I didn’t have it any harder than anybody else over there, but that was what Jimmy did such an excellent job of kind of portraying, was that the monologue talks about not being able to shower for weeks, never knowing when you’re going to get attacked, never knowing really who or where your enemy is. And then the other part of it is what you really never see, is what happens when you come back, that nobody really wants to hear what you went through and just expects you to pick up like nothing happened. And for so many of us, we can’t just pretend that the most significant event in our lives never happened.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was quite interesting that after The New York Times did an article about the banning of the play at Wilton High, Ira Levin wrote a piece, wrote a letter to the editor. He is the author of The Stepford Wives. And he wrote the paper a letter that said, "Wilton, Connecticut, 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." So Wilton, Connecticut, is the actual real town that Stepford is based on.

BONNIE DICKINSON: The people in Wilton who read that article, that letter, were very upset and very ashamed and humiliated by that letter. And they were also very ashamed and humiliated by The New York Times article. And we had a lot of backlash from the town itself, from the high school itself, because we were singled out as having brought shame to Wilton. Most of the people in the town did not know anything about this. They did not really know the back story. I’m not permitted to talk about what really happened. And a lot of covering up was done.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re being investigated, Bonnie Dickinson, drama teacher?

BONNIE DICKINSON: They finally finished it. They finally finished the investigation or, you know, the committee report on what I did and didn’t do based on a parent complaint. And they’ve said that there’s going to be no reprimand and no charges filed against me. But I want to make sure that nothing goes in my personnel file, nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: For performing this play? Maybe —

BONNIE DICKINSON: For doing this play, for researching this play, for plagiarizing this play, for doing anything, because now they’ve said I’m publicly off the hook. I haven’t done anything wrong. So I want to make sure nothing goes in my file.

AMY GOODMAN: Jimmy, we just have a few seconds. How you feel having performed this, and do you think you’ll ever get to perform it for your classmates at Wilton High?

JIMMY PRESSON: Well, it’s been a really exhilarating experience to share the voices of the soldiers at all. But I think we’re optimistic that the people who are willing to listen from our school will come see the show, as some have already.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it at that. Bonnie Dickinson, thanks for joining us, drama teacher at Wilton High; Jimmy Presson, Wilton High School student; and Courtney Stack, another student, all participated in the play Voices in Conflict.

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