Cleetus Friedman got to talking with a stranger at a Chicago restaurant last year and wound up with an invitation to perform at Lake Forest High School's annual Dimensions program--a two-day showcase that brings people in from all walks of life to share their work with students. Friedman, who is white, practices something he calls hip-hop theater--a combination of rap and humorous character sketches laced with strong language. He says he discussed the language thing with his Dimensions contact and dropped anything gratuitous from "Crackers," his latest one-man-and-a-DJ show, before taking it to Lake Forest. A Baltimore transplant who'd never ventured to the far reaches of the North Shore, Friedman was impressed: "I thought we were pulling up to a country club," he says. "It was the high school."
Friedman had been hired to do two 45-minute performances back-to-back. He had planned a 30-minute show (including bits like "Jewpac & Dr. Dreidel" and "Here Comes the Cracker") followed by 15 minutes of Q and A, and the first performance seemed to go off without a hitch. But halfway through the second, just after his "W.I.T.E. Radio" sketch, a couple of faculty heavies showed up to tell him he was through. "W.I.T.E. Radio" consists of an exchange between a white disc jockey and a black caller concerned about the DJ's pronunciation of "nigger." "That's n-i-g-g-a," the caller says.
"The point [of the sketch] is that it's wrong no matter how you say it," says Friedman. "But the students heard the word 'nigger' and just flipped out and [complained to teachers]. I had passed out a mailing list, and somebody on the faculty thought I was starting a white supremacist group. So they confiscated my list and ripped the pages out--failing to even understand that I'm Jewish. I was floored. I walked back out and said I wanted to talk about it, and it sparked a 15- or 20-minute debate, which was a good thing." But in the end, Friedman says, things were unresolved; some people there still think his social satire is racist. When he volunteered to return for more discussion he says his contact on the parent-run program suggested "to make things better I could send them a donation to pay somebody to come in and talk about racial profiling. My ass. Lake Forest asking me to send them money? That's a joke right there."
Friedman got the hook because "the language and themes didn't fit our program," says Lake Forest's assistant principal, Jay Hoffmann. "A lot of the younger kids jumped to some wrong conclusions. Several black students were offended. I had quite a few calls the next day, including one man who said he was affiliated with the NAACP and was keeping track of what we're doing."
Heidi Too Hot to Handle
When Lake Forest High School produced Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles last fall, Hoffmann says they "removed some language and modified some of the adult themes." Deerfield High School theater director Carl Menninger had planned to do the same in his school's production, also last fall. "Originally, I had changed the language," Menninger says. "But it didn't work." Most of the potentially objectionable stuff was in one scene, spoken by one character (the strident feminist and lesbian, Fran), and it was used to establish a historical context, Menninger explains. "I think those words were chosen deliberately, and the more I worked on the play the more I came to understand that." He went back to his department head and principal and said the "right thing to do in terms of honoring the play was to put the language back in." Most of it was reinstated, and the entire freshman class was required to see the play as part of a lesson in developing thesis statements.
Within a week a handful of angry parents had developed a thesis statement of their own. It went something like this: the play was inappropriate; parents should have been warned; kids should have been able to opt out; the school needs a policy to save it from further drama department offenses. Over a period of several months they met with school officials, who agreed to give parents advance notice in the future and make sure kids know how to opt out but stood by their case-by-case procedure for deciding what to produce. So earlier this month Grady and Lora Sue Hauser mailed 6,700 letters citing Heidi excerpts like "equal pay, equal rights, equal orgasms," "I'm gay," and "Fuck you" and inviting residents to last week's school board meeting.
When hundreds of people tried to squeeze into the small District 113 headquarters, the meeting was moved to Highland Park High School, where 59 of them stood up to express their opinions for two minutes each. Speakers included a philosophy professor who said the question is "what is drama?"; a Bible-quoting reverend "glad to stand in a public school and bring God into the discussion"; classmates of Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry who remember when they created a theater in this very high school cafeteria; a former medic who said we don't have to see everything and in Greek drama people die offstage; a parent emeritus who wants "more demeaning religious references, more people who can challenge every stupid, primitive superstition"; and bare-bellied 16-year-olds claiming that "we're already being sheltered enough by living in Deerfield." Grady Hauser pointed out that the Heidi excerpts wouldn't make the cut on radio or television. Nearly everyone was worried about a slippery slope--either to censorship or to Sodom. According to assistant superintendent Susan Benjamin, 29 speakers were in favor of a policy, 29 were opposed, and one had an opinion that couldn't be deciphered. She says the board will mull it over.
Theater League's Captive Audience
Dialed up American Theatre Critics Association convention chair Jonathan Abarbanel to ask if what we'd heard is true: the critics will see only League of Chicago Theatre plays when they come to town in June? Abarbanel confirmed it is. "Last time the convention was here [in 1991] we let the critics choose from everything on the map," he said. "The logistics of arranging the tickets and getting people there were horrific. I wanted to avoid that this year. The league was willing to take on the chore of facilitating the tickets, and I said I'm willing to accept the limitation of seeing only league shows in return for their cosponsorship and help. That's the reason we were willing to accept that quid pro quo. Afterward I was surprised to find several important theater companies in town are not league members--but that's their choice and not my affair." The conference will end at noon Sunday, June 16, Abarbanel added. "A certain percentage will stay over and see another show, and at that point they can choose anything."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.