Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Standing Up to the Madness
Voices in Conflict
Jimmy Presson was freaking out. The 16-year-old junior from Wilton High School in Connecticut was pacing in a corner, going over his lines for the school play. He had a powerful monologue to deliver, and he wanted to get it right. He was playing the part of an Iraq War veteran, Navy Hospital Corpsman Charlie Anderson. The vet was describing his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Finally, the house lights dimmed. Jimmy stepped forward, his feet spread in a defiant stance, his demeanor a bit bewildered, like the seaman whose life he was channeling:
My symptoms didn’t show up right away. Then everything just caught up to me and hit me all at once. . . . You get home, you relax, and then it just comes rushing up. I have nightmares. I can’t sleep.
There was a dramatic pause, and Jimmy exhaled. As he looked out, he didn’t see the faces of friends and families in the Wilton High School auditorium, the venue for other school plays in which he had acted. Instead, he was peering from the stage of the Culture Project, a theater in SoHo. The audience was New York City theater buffs.
When Jimmy Presson signed up for Theater Arts II taught by teacher Bonnie Dickinson in the spring of 2007, he and the other students couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that they would end up performing in a New York City theater. Professional actors only hope of getting a break like this. Jimmy and the rest of the cast were just high school students who had spent the spring preparing to perform for their friends and families. Suddenly, their student play, Voices in Conflict, was banned from Wilton High School.
Was there graphic sex? Homosexuality? Violence?
No—but the theater arts students had done plays that dealt with all those hot-button issues in previous years without incident or objection from the school administration. Voices in Conflict dealt with a topic that was much too hot to discuss in this suburban Connecticut school.
The subject was war.
When Wilton High School tried to silence the student actors in the spring of 2007, the students of Wilton and their teacher mounted a national stage. Their courageous stand shed light on the pervasive silencing of critical voices, especially when those voices are veterans telling the story of living and dying in a war they have been sent to fight in our name.
We find Bonnie Dickinson sitting at an outside table at a café on a warm summer afternoon in the picturesque village of Wilton. This suburban community of eighteen thousand lies less than an hour from New York City, but its sense of cloistered affluence makes it seem a world away. A group of students and parents have joined us to talk about the experience of being banned, shunned, and then hailed and celebrated. It has been two months since their last curtain call, but the outrage and exhilaration of their experience comes bubbling back with each retelling.
Dickinson has been the drama teacher at Wilton High School since 1993. A 53-year-old mother of two, she is dressed in jeans and a stylish blue blouse, her face framed by a mane of blond hair. Her students casually alternate between “Bonnie” and “Mrs. Dickinson” when addressing her. She is hip enough to connect with them, but also commands their respect.
Dickinson graduated from New York University in 1976 and struggled to survive as an actress doing off-off-Broadway shows; she later cofounded an experimental multiracial Shakespeare company in Los Angeles. A popular teacher, her classes at Wilton High School, which is home to 1,250 students, typically have waiting lists. She is well known in the school and community as the director of the fall play and the drama club. Dickinson is not involved in Wilton High School’s extravagant spring musicals—West Side Story and Grease were some of the recent productions—which are performed in a $10 million state-of-the-art theater. She prefers the “intimate, shabby Little Theater” for her dramatic performances.
Dickinson’s real passion is educational theater, which she offers to students in several theater arts classes. She often uses drama to tackle difficult and sensitive issues within the school community. Several years ago, when Wilton High School was the scene of gay bashing incidents and some lockers had been defaced with racial epithets, Dickinson and her students chose to perform The Laramie Project. The play, about the murder of
Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, was “a big success. Only one parent out of a thousand said we don’t want our kid to do it,” she recalls. The administration had been concerned about the subject matter, but agreed to allow the play to be performed for juniors and seniors.
In the fall of 2006, Dickinson was looking for a new way to engage her students. As she often did, the drama teacher stopped by the school library to see what new books looked interesting. The English Department chairwoman, Sandy Soson, was also prowling the stacks looking for material. By chance, the two teachers stumbled upon the same book, In Conflict: Iraq War Veterans Speak Out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive, by Yvonne Latty. The book is a collection of first-person accounts from soldiers about their experiences fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Teachers are always looking for voices of kids their age,” Dickinson tells us. “I saw the book as a collection of great monologues. There’s nothing like a first-person anecdote to connect with the audience. This was a natural piece of theater.” Dickinson planned to offer the soldiers’ monologues to her theater arts students and see whether it captured their interest.
A personal play about war was especially timely. Wilton High School had been shaken that fall by the news that Nicholas Madaras, a 2005 Wilton graduate who had joined the army, had been killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. It gave further impetus to Dickinson’s interest in offering the students a play that dealt with the war. When she approached principal Timothy Canty in November 2006 with In Conflict, she recalls that he said that the idea of a play based on the book “sounds great.”
“You might even honor Nick in it,” Canty told her. Dickinson agreed. It was a routine approval.
When Theater Arts II met in January 2007, Dickinson was contacted by a parent, Barbara Alessi, who had a son serving in the military in Iraq and whose daughter was initially signed up for Dickinson’s class. Alessi complained to both Dickinson and Canty that the play was “anti-war.” It hadn’t occurred to Dickinson that the soldiers’ real-life experience
of combat could be construed as pro- or anti-war.
On March 9, Canty called Dickinson. “I don’t wanna hear from this parent anymore,” Dickinson recalls Canty telling her. “Shut this play down now.” (Canty, along with the members of the Wilton school board and Superintendent Gary Richards, declined our requests for comment.)
Dickinson pleaded for more time to change the script to make it more “balanced.” She spent a frantic weekend working with teacher Sandy Soson to add more explicitly pro-war voices to counter any perception of bias. But when she presented the revised script to Canty, he was unconvinced.
The administration’s rationale for shutting down the play began shifting. Dickinson says Canty told her, “I’m very concerned about the sister of the soldier who died. She should not have this going on in school.” Then he complained that a revised script was too violent. Later, he claimed that the script was plagiarized, since it drew heavily on other books and a documentary film, The Ground Truth, allegedly without attribution.
“We tried to make sense of it, but there was no making sense,” Dickinson tells us, waving her hand in exasperation.
Canty informed Dickinson that the play could not go on. It was a few weeks before the performance. Dickinson insisted that he explain to the students in person why he was taking this action. On March 13, 2007, Canty met the students in the school theater, where they had been working on the play for two months.
“You can’t do this play,” he told them flatly. He said it was too controversial, too complicated. And just to be sure they understood, Dickinson recounts that he added, “You can’t do this anywhere. You can work on it. But you can never perform it.”
Students protested. Senior Erin Clancy, her voice trembling, said, “I’m 18—old enough to fight in the war, and old enough to vote for leaders who send people to war. So why
can’t I perform in a play about it?”
One student began swearing at the principal. Dickinson admonished the student and insisted that Canty be treated with respect.
Canty said his decision was final. He had made up his mind and would not debate the matter any further. “This ship has sailed,” he told them. Jimmy Presson was disgusted. Canty may have mollified one student and parent, but “he was hanging us out to dry.”
We all become casualties of war. Who we are when we leave is not who we are when and if we’re lucky to physically return. Because psychologically, you, you, you’re completely changed by it.
—Corp. Sean Huze, from The Ground Truth, read by senior Seth Kopronski, Voices in Conflict
Students debated how to respond. One suggested letters to the editor. Another wanted to picket. Then an irate parent of one of the theater arts students contacted a reporter at the New York Times. On March 24, 2007, the Times ran a story describing how Wilton High School was shutting down a play about the Iraq War.
“Our school is all about censorship,” Jimmy Presson was quoted in the article as saying. “People don’t talk about the things that matter.”
Principal Tim Canty countered, “It would be easy to look at this case on first glance and decide this is a question of censorship or academic freedom. In some minds, I can see how they would react this way. But quite frankly, it’s a false argument,” he told the Times.
The response was swift and stunning. Invitations began to arrive for the students to perform in major theaters in New York City, including the prestigious Public Theater. Theater professionals of the Dramatists Guild of America, among whom were playwrights Edward Albee and Stephen Sondheim, sent letters of protest to Superintendent Gary Richards. The National Coalition Against Censorship called for the
show to go on. Music Theatre International, an agency that licenses many high school productions, awarded the students its first ever “Courage in Theatre” award.
Voices in Conflict was in the spotlight after all.
Then the recriminations began. “Theater fag,” “traitor” were just some of the names posted on a Facebook Web page about the students. The sixteen members of the cast found themselves shoved in the school hallways and shunned in the cafeteria. “It was horrible,” says Presson of the aftermath. Through it all, the students stayed focused on their goal: bringing their play to the widest possible audience.
Meanwhile, the Wilton High School administration was digging in against the students. Superintendent Gary Richards issued a letter that stated: “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.”
Richards continued, “We believe that this play can be upsetting to our student, parent, and community audience. . . . .As a school, we have a responsibility to ensure that the Iraq war, the lives lost, and the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families are presented in the appropriate context with appropriate support and guidance. . . . In its present form, the play does not meet those standards.”
The students responded the way they knew best: They promptly added Richards’s letter to the script. The cold, condescending bureaucratese would be in stark relief opposite the play’s passionate eyewitness testimonials.
Jimmy Presson, dressed in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes, tells us that the battle was often isolating. “It felt like we were being kind of separated, like Wilton High School feels this way, and those students feel that way. That hurt a lot. . . . I don’t hate my high school. I’m not trying to bring down the administration.
“We’re not attacking anyone here,” he says, his voice rising in anger. “The play wasn’t meant to make people feel bad, or make people feel war was bad. It wasn’t Democrats versus Republicans. None of this was a factor when we did the play.”
Bonnie Dickinson became the subject of attacks. Barbara Alessi wrote an op-ed piece for the Wilton Bulletin declaring, “Though the play was to be an indictment of the troops, Ms. Dickinson was misrepresenting intent from the very beginning. . . . This was never about the ideal of freedom of speech. It was about the manipulative use and abuse of that principle by a vindictive teacher who used the hot button issue to attract the attention of the New York Times.”
Alessi concluded with a veiled threat: “Does Ms. Dickinson believe that the media firestorm would inoculate her from all negative repercussions once the uproar died down and her actions were exposed? If she does, I believe she is wrong.” Alessi then filed a lengthy administrative complaint against Dickinson in late April.
Meanwhile, the national media shone a light on political censorship in Wilton. The students appeared on CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America, and were featured in articles from the Los Angeles Times to the Christian Science Monitor. In response, the administration hedged, but didn’t relent. In April, Principal Canty announced that it might be possible to have the play performed in school in the fall—after half the cast graduated.
Dickinson and the student actors had already shifted their energies into preparing for performances at the Public Theater, the Culture Project, and the Vineyard Theater in New York, and at the Fairfield Theater in Connecticut. In early June, an assistant superintendent again asked to see the script, which now included the superintendent’s letter. “This is the version you want to do for school?” the administrator asked
“Now it is,” Dickinson shot back.
Dickinson was emboldened, but nervous. “I was really scared for my job,” she tells us as we have coffee with her and the students in Wilton. Cars honk nearby en route to a Wilton High School football game. A cancer survivor and mother, Dickinson could not afford to be fired. Noted First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus volunteered to defend her and assured her that she would not lose her job.
The school’s clumsy attempt to salvage its image ended up ensuring that Wilton’s name became synonymous with censorship. “Had the school not done any of this stuff,” said Garbus of the play, “it would have just gone through uneventfully.”
The experiences I have had in the last two years have brought me down, but hopefully I’ll get stronger. I just got to get there.
—Army Reserves Sgt. Lisa Haynes, from In Conflict, by
Yvonne Latty, read by senior Erin Clancy, Voices in Conflict
“Striving for Excellence” declares the slogan over the front door of Wilton High School. Indeed, Wilton is one of Connecticut’s top public schools. But when it comes to discussing the war in Iraq, the school’s motto would more accurately be “Striving for Silence.”
When Wilton High School administrators banned Voices in Conflict, they shut down the only place in school where the Iraq War was being vigorously discussed. Jimmy Presson, who was named after an uncle who was killed in the Vietnam War, tells us that his U.S. history class had 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.”
Other students said they could discuss the war in a Middle Eastern Studies class, but it was not being taught that spring. So it fell to Theater Arts II to be the only class in school where students were discussing the war in any depth.
Actually, there is one other place where students talk about war. “We also get to speak about it with the military recruiters who are always at school,” says Presson wryly.
Wilton High School has a history of muzzling free speech. Students were upset in 2007 because the administration required that yearbook quotations come from wellknown
sources, out of fear they might contain coded messages. When the school’s Gay Straight Alliance hung posters a few years ago, the administration ordered that all
student posters be approved in advance, due to public safety concerns. Wilton administrators attempted to ban bandanas, insisting they could be associated with gangs. Officials were forced to back down when hundreds of bandana-wearing students
showed up at school.
Wilton High School is not alone in attempting to banish controversy from the mouths of its babes. In whitewashing dissent, it has taken a page from the script followed by President George W. Bush.
At the start of the Iraq War, Bush issued an executive order banning photos of soldiers’ caskets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, neatly decoupling the disastrous war from its body count. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration’s decisive intervention was to ban images of dead bodies floating down the boulevards of New Orleans. And President Bush’s advance team has banished protesters from appearing anyplace where cameras might capture them. It is all part of an elaborate effort to create a Potemkin presidency, where reality is defined and managed by those in power.
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg explained the rationale best: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”
In this environment of manipulated imagery and suppression of free speech, it is no surprise that censorship in schools is on the rise:
• At John Jay High School in Cross River, New York (about fifteen miles from Wilton), three high school girls were suspended in March 2007 for reading an excerpt of Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, during an open mic night at school. Their crime: uttering the word “vagina” after being warned not to. Parents decried the “blatant attempt at censorship,” and the suspension was overturned.
• In March 2006, high school geography teacher Jay Bennish was suspended from Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado, following a class in which he criticized
President Bush. Bennish’s talk was recorded by a student, who gave it to local radio stations. In response to Bennish’s suspension, more than one hundred students walked out of class. Bennish was reinstated several days later.
• Deborah A. Mayer, a teacher at an Indiana elementary school, lost her job after discussing the Iraq War. The class was reading about the impending war in the newsmagazine Time for Kids in January 2003 when the students in her grade 3–6 multiage class asked if she had ever protested. Mayer replied that she had honked when passing a demonstration where someone held a sign saying “Honk for Peace.” After a parent complained, the principal barred Ms. Mayer from discussing “peace” in her classroom and canceled the school’s traditional “peace month.” The school announced a few months later that Mayer would not be rehired.
For Wilton parent Hermon Telyan, whose daughter Taylor acted in Voices in Conflict, being censored struck a familiar and chilling chord. Telyan, an Armenian who fled persecution in Turkey, is emotional as he tells us about his experience. “I lived fascism and repression. It is very familiar to me. I can smell fascism in a crowd.
“The first rule of fascism is censorship in the arts,” he explains. Wilton administrators articulated it “in such a nice way I have to applaud. We have here a first-class fascist mentality. It came from Washington to Wilton.”
While the debate over the banned play filled the pages of local newspapers—one parent said it was the most heavily covered local story he’d seen in his twenty-two years in Wilton—“the administration, the faculty, and the students became eerily silent on the matter,” recalls Glen Clancy, whose daughter Erin was in the play. “The silence of the populace involved is one of the things I find most disturbing in
the dynamics of censorship.”
Ira Levin, author of The Stepford Wives, the best-selling novel and movie that depicts a town in which people are blindly conformist, wrote a letter to the New York Times immediately after the story about the play banning. Levin, who died in November 2007, drew the connection between fact and fiction:
“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, therefore, to learn that Wilton High School has a Stepford principal, one who would keep his halls and classrooms squeaky-clean of any “inflammatory” material that might hurt some Wilton families. It’s heartening, though, to know that 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. I salute them.”
Another letter to the Times helpfully suggested a play that would be perfectly suited to Wilton High School and its administration: a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.
I’ve spent hours taking in the world through a rifle scope, watching life unfold. Women hanging laundry on a rooftop. Men haggling over a hindquarter of lamb in the market. Children walking to school. I’ve watched this and hoped that someday I would see that my presence had made their lives better, a redemption of sorts. But I also peered through the scope waiting for some- one to do something wrong, so I could shoot him. When you pick up a weapon with the intent of killing, you step onto a very strange and serious playing field. . . . You’re all part of the terrible magic show, both powerful and helpless. I miss Iraq. I miss the war.
—Brian Mockenhaupt, U.S. Army infantryman, read by junior Nick Lanza, Voices in Conflict
* * *
We choose to hear the voices of those who serve.
The lone, determined voice echoes throughout the hall of the Culture Project as the second New York City performance of Voices in Conflict opens. The theater is abuzz with excitement, as the students jostle one another backstage to get in position to take center stage.
Jimmy Presson, acting the part of Navy Seaman Charlie Anderson, steps forward.
We take fire, we return fire. The military taught us how to pull the trigger but never once did they tell us what to do next.
I heard it takes eleven or twelve years to adapt to being home. But right now, I don’t even feel like I have a home. It’s like I went away to war and someone secretly replaced my country. No one really understands me.
The doctors say I have post-traumatic stress disorder. Disorder? I call it post-traumatic stress order. I’m worried about the guys who go through what we did and be normal.
Then it’s Devon Fontaine’s turn. The thin, dark-haired high school student takes on the persona of Marine Sgt. Robert Sarra. He tells a harrowing story of what happened one day when a woman in a burka approached him.
I pulled up my rifle, took two shots at her. I know I probably missed the first shot. The second shot, I’m pretty sure I hit her. And as soon as that second shot went off, the guys on the other vehicle opened up and they cut her down. She fell to the dirt, and as she fell, she had a, a white flag in her hand.
At that moment there, I lost it. I threw my weapon down on the deck of the vehicle and I was crying and I was like “Oh my god, what are we doing here? What’s happening?”
I had a gunnery sergeant who had been in the first war. He said it happens. There’s nothing you can do to bring her back. It happens. We got to keep going.
Devon tells us back in Wilton, “Thinking about that woman coming toward my vehicle and shooting her once, twice—yeah it is very violent. But that’s what war is.
“Every time I did that monologue, I saw that woman, I shot her. . . . It affected me every time—in a good way. It put me in the shoes of this soldier. I really felt like I was there.”
Courtney Stack, a junior and the choreographer for the play, hadn’t thought much about Iraq before the play. “You have these numbers thrown at you about how many died today, yesterday—after being exposed to that, you sort of become numb to it. . . . Seeing other kids assuming the roles of these different people, it changes it from just a number to realizing these are people who are not that different from who we are. That makes such an astonishing impression.” Courtney reflected on the impact that each soldier’s death has had on their families and communities. “I think of how it would feel if a couple hundred students didn’t show up for school one day. That’s the real effect of this war.”
At the end of the play, students step forward, one by one, to introduce themselves—in the words of others.
And so we serve those who serve by telling their stories.
Who are we?
Rebels without a cause.
Liberal pig parents.
Then one by one, the actors challenge those who tried to silence them:
Why is talking about the war “sensational and inappropriate”?
Since when has war not been graphic and violent?
If they consider the words of the soldiers biased, why do they allow an army recruiter into the school cafeteria?
Why has the school been silent on these issues?
Why did it take a New York Times article to start discussion?
As the curtain falls on the last monologue, the audience rises in a long standing ovation. Some people have tears in their eyes. Culture Project artistic director Allan Buchman speaks. “I couldn’t be more proud of having this work on our stage. It should travel around the country. Why it is not shown [in Wilton] is beyond my comprehension. What we saw tonight,” he said, “is the reason to have a theater.”
Actor Stanley Tucci, who starred in The Devil Wears Prada, had visited Wilton to interview the students after the play was banned. He says, “I suddenly felt there was some hope that theater was not just indulgent but can actually do some good, and some damage, in a good way.” He then addressed the students and their teacher. “You’ve made the people of Connecticut very proud.”
Devon talks to us after the performance about what he gained. “I learned that you’ve gotta fight for what you believe in.”
Natalie Kropf, an ebullient senior, says, “I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from anything I’ve done. Some soldiers came two nights ago. They came backstage and said, ‘You guys nailed it two hundred percent.’ I just felt so proud.”
The parents agree. Moira Rizzo, whose daughter Allie was in the play, tells us, “I would say it was the most meaningful,inspiring thing that has happened to us as her parents yet. I wouldn’t trade this personal growth experience for my kid for anything in the world. It’s a shame because this was an opportunity for everyone to look fantastic. Bonnie and the kids came out shining, and the school system came out looking like a bunch of fools.”
Glen Clancy, father of actress Erin, observed that in defying their banning order, the students learned more than they’d ever imagined. “They learned that those in authority to whom they have given unquestioned respect can suddenly turn devious and duplicitous when it’s time to cover their own butts. They learned bravery by watching their now beloved teacher endure job-threatening actions from the school and stand tall in their defense because what they were doing was the right thing to do. They were presented with Music Theatre International’s ‘Courage in Theatre’ award, but every one of them will tell you the real courage was displayed by Bonnie Dickinson. Now, that is a role model.”
Dickinson’s ordeal continued even after the performances finished. In August 2007, the school administration released the results of the investigation that it did in response to Barbara Alessi’s complaint. The school found that almost all of the charges leveled by Alessi were unsubstantiated. But the school insisted that Dickinson did not cite her sources properly. In fact, the students identified the source for each of their monologues during the performances, but Wilton officials would not have known: Not a single Wilton administrator attended any of the nine performances that were staged in New York City and Connecticut theaters in June and July 2007.
In November 2007, Dickinson and her former Theater Arts II students traveled to New York City again. This time they came to receive an award from the National Coalition Against Censorship, which recognized them for “their courage in writing and performing Voices in Conflict.”
Bonnie Dickinson continues to feel harassed by school officials, but vindicated by her students. We ask her why she fought. She is in a hurry—she has to conduct a rehearsal for the fall play, a hip-hop version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night—but she pauses to answer.
“For the kids. I could not let them down. . . . I realized this is where my whole life was going. . . . I love these kids. I love doing theater. And that’s it. I could care less what the administration says about me.”
She pauses a moment and just shakes her head as she ponders all that has happened. “This censorship was so blatant. Fifty-five minutes from New York City, in 2007,” she sputters in exasperation. “Didn’t they ever learn anything? Here we are fighting for democracy in Iraq—that’s the irony of it all.”
For one of their last performances at the Public Theater in New York, the parents and students decided to buy a plane ticket for Charlie Anderson to fly in. He was the navy seaman with PTSD whose words were brought to life by Jimmy Presson. As the show ended, Anderson walked up to Jimmy and embraced him in a giant bear hug. He then pinned his medic badge on Jimmy.
“The navy’s core values are honor, courage, and commitment,” Anderson told the student actors, “and I can say beyond any doubt that you all exemplified all of them.”
STUDENT: Who are we?
CAST: Just some kids from Connecticut.
We are not the future of America. We are America. One love.
From the book Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times By Amy Goodman and David Goodman Published by Hyperion April 2008;$23.95US; 978-1-4013-2288-5 Copyright © 2008 Amy Goodman and David Goodman
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