Is play cancellation censorship?
Did Lakota East High School's production of the Agatha Christie classic "Ten Little Indians" die of racial insensitivity or censorship? That's at the center of this "whatdunit" of a play that hasn't been considered controversial since World War II.
This weekend's production of the classic whodunit was canceled after Gary Hines, president of the local NAACP branch and head of the diversity training company GPH Consultants, brought complaints from parents to school administrators. Hines declined to say how many parents were involved.
The objection is that the mystery play was inappropriate for a school production because the original 1939 novel, published in England, carried a racially objectionable title, which was quickly changed to "And Then There Were None."
What's easy to identify at Lakota are the victims: the dozens of kids who've dedicated almost three months and hundreds of hours to producing the show. "Everybody's bummed," senior Graylyn Roose said. After weeks of memorizing lines, building sets and costumes, designing sound and lights and rehearsing, the curtain went up on the offstage drama Nov. 12, when students noticed suspect behavior: Drama teacher Rich Schmaltz was being called out of class for phone calls and meetings.
By the end of the week, it was decided that the show would go on, with some small changes to the script, no student-body-assembly performance and all money raised going to a diversity awareness fund.
But by Nov. 20, it had all fallen apart.
Students say they were told the play was canceled because there was reason to be concerned about their safety. "What I did was this," Hines said. "I called to get information on procedures for filing for public demonstration. I did not file. Let's be clear about this. (School administrators) censored themselves." Jon Weidlich, Lakota director of school/community relations, said the decision was strictly about "outcry in the community. As people became familiar with (the play), they became less and less confident and more and more uncomfortable."
Schmaltz sighs that the theater program "is about the kids. ... And it stopped being about the kids." "Ten Little Indians" is not a play that is typically at the center of controversy.
Mystery fans know "Ten Little Indians" as one of Christie's nursery-rhyme plays (such as "The Mousetrap"), with strangers trapped on an island with a maniac killer who murders them one by one, according to the verses. Every time someone dies, a figurine of an Indian is knocked over. In 1930s England, the original was titled "Ten Little N - - - - - -."
Educational Theatre Association judges it to be perennially in the top 25 shows produced on high school stages nationally.
Abbie Van Nostrand, vice president of Samuel French Inc., American licensing agent for Christie plays, said that while French doesn't "keep statistics," she had not heard of objections and said that French "does very well with Agatha Christie and with this title all the time" (now licensed as "And Then There Were None"). Van Nostrand said the group was "not having an issue with it in 2007-2008."
Since 1992, Ron Blankenbuehler has directed the popular mystery three times at Ursuline Academy and Roger Bacon high schools without a whisper of protest.
"I love the show," Blankenbuehler said. "There are great lessons in it."
Hines is a theater fan, and with his wife, Cynthia Pinchback-Hines, was a founding member of the African-American Theatre Company of Butler County a few years back.
Hines argued that people are generally unaware of the origins of "Ten Little Indians" and of some recent scholarly considerations of Christie. If they were informed, they would have objections, too, Hines said.
Weidlich agreed and told of a conversation he had with a black staff member who said, "You don't teach kids not to play with matches by showing them how to play with matches."
While Hines said the play is about "genocide," he also said "Ten Little Indians" is fine on stages from community to professional. It's high school productions he questions, in general. "Kids don't have enough information about diversity."
Hines also questioned the choice at Lakota East, in particular, which Hines thinks has a poor track record in diversity issues. He said he views the production "in a broader context of the history of the (school) district."
Hines operates GPH Consultants, a diversity training company in West Chester Township, and has made various racial accusations against Lakota schools through the years, Joan Powell, president of the Lakota Board of Education, said this week. She said Hines' personal financial interests sometimes come into play through his recommendations.
Hines said it's up to every high school's community to make up their own minds about producing the show and that American Indians should also be given an opportunity to weigh in publicly.
Using "Ten Little Indians" as a diversity exercise and a departure point for "a community discussion would have been great," Hines said, but noted "by the time (school administrators) came to us, they'd pulled the play."
Weidlich agreed that the original idea was to use the students' hard work as "a teachable moment" until it became clear that emotions within Lakota East were running high.
"Time will tell whether it was the right or wrong decision," he said.
As for the students, senior Alicia Frost said, "It's all I can think about." She was "enraged" by the undisputed charge that the mystery had a theme of genocide and that administrators came away from a Monday evening meeting with a statement that "students are disappointed but know it's for the best."
Roose, who was set to play the judge, said: "There's a lesson to be learned. I personally disagree with the administration's choice.
"It's always that there's no easy answer. There's always dissenting opinion. But you can't condone censorship."
The students are actively looking for a venue to perform their "Ten Little Indians," with no affiliation with Lakota East.
With the production budget spent on the canceled show, Schmaltz, the drama teacher and theater director, is reviving a production of "Harvey" to give Lakota East a school play this year.