Critical Thunkers 

Many plays have questionable content: Censor all?

I graduated from Bingham High School in 1972 with embarrassing grades, a right shoulder destroyed forever thanks to a dislocation that the coaches treated with some hot cream, and a $50 scholarship to the University of Utah, where I would remain lost for the next seven years. The only thing that went right for me that year was I did what many teens do and fell in love—or whatever one calls it at that age. Nope, it didn’t last.

I’ve been reminded about my time at Bingham High School lately—the old school, mind you, the one up in Bingham Canyon at Copperton. My youngest son, Mikey, plays baseball for Judge Memorial, which played Bingham on Monday. Bingham won 18 to 3 in seven innings. Those 18 runs are very likely more than the Bingham High team I played on in 1970 scored during the entire season.

They can’t have felt very good after this win, though. Not only is Judge a 3A school (fewer students in its entire four-year program than 5A Bingham has in its senior class), but Judge also took the field with a team comprised entirely of kids who’d just finished their freshman and sophomore years. Judge’s day will come, though, and I’d like to see them play those guys again in a couple of years.

In many ways, Judge is like I remember the old Bingham, right down to its colorful ethnic mix, obvious even in Monday’s ballgame. So, there I was, being served flashbacks by kids dressed in colors I used to wear. I didn’t feel terribly connected until I saw the block “B” on some of the batting helmets, a remnant that is of the same style as 40 years ago (along with another remnant, old friend and classmate, Joey Sato, BHS ’74, who has coached at Bingham since 1975). That “B” did something for me. It drew me back to the old Bingham, full as it was with the sons of copper miners and the daughters of beet farmers. And I remembered one of my favorite teachers ever, Jean Wollam, who taught English.

In my senior year, our English class read Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. That was a very important, yet controversial book back then, told as it was from the perspective of a teenage, black, inner-city criminal who ultimately makes good. Everything about that book was as far removed from our Pollyanna lifestyles as possible. It spoke to racial inequality, street justice, drugs, gangs and sex. Knowing that last point might not meet with approval of our parents (who only feared their children were having sex, but didn’t know if they were actually doing it), Ms. Wollam didn’t require that we read certain passages.

I don’t remember any parent, school or school-board fallout. No one died. I remember everyone liking the book and learning an awful lot, vicariously living another’s life and daring to imagine that even our little world—and Brown’s—could be made better. Our minds opened a bit. I believe that is what is called “critical thinking.”

So, I’m a bit stunned that 40 years on, Bingham High School is embroiled in a controversy, ostensibly because some anonymous parents aligned with, or encouraged by, the radical-right Eagle Forum, object to the nature of a school play performed there. The play, Dead Man Walking, ran its course this spring to hardly an utterance of objection. But it’s never too late for Gayle Ruzicka and her simplistic band of troublemakers to raise Holy Hell. So, they chastise the school. They unfairly blaspheme Bingham’s drama teacher, Michelle Willden. They want an apology from Bingham and the Jordan School District and are seemingly positioning for a new play-selection method that includes parental oversight.

In that case, why not just perform The Sound of Music annually as a school play, replete as it is with “oversight” from Austrian Nazis? How ironic that would be. But time travel back to 1972, and there wasn’t a high school choir in the land that didn’t perform “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” especially here in Utah, where chords are king. If Dead Man Walking had only a few rousing dance numbers and an uplifting song or two, the blind and nosy Eagle Forum would have been no worse for the wear. But a play with authentic dialogue and actual thought? Heaven forbid!

Maybe a different play then? Li’l Abner? Nah, if my Broadway musical memory is in order, there’s a beer reference in that one (I’m pretty sure it was C.H. Miller in the lead role who proclaimed his love to Daisy Mae by swimming “through a vat of beer with my mouth closed” on the old Bingham stage, to much laughter—oh, if I have the wrong play, stab me). Can’t talk about race relations either, so South Pacific and its crucible song, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” is definitely out. Don Quixote? Gang-rape scene.

How about Carousel? Who doesn’t tear up at the songs “If I Loved You” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone”? What decent Utahn doesn’t admire that Billy Bigelow comes down from heaven to make amends with the daughter he never knew?

I’ll tell you who—the same Utahns who don’t mind that Billy Bigelow is a wife beating, spouse-abusing cad of a human being. But he sings! Today, many women cringe at the thought that Julie Jordan, Bigelow’s Carousel amore, just took her slaps to the face like that’s how it’s supposed to be. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

Thank goodness for critical thinking. Thank you, Jean Wollam. Thank you, Michelle Willden. Suck it up, BHS, and tell Wicked Gayle to take a “spoonful of sugar” with her bad medicine and kiss off!

Twitter: @JohnSaltas

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