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Community questions controversy over banned Sherwood Middle School play

Hundreds turn out to see three productions of the banned play, "Higher Ground," in Portland
by: Shanda Tice, CALLING OUT THE BULLIES – Paying homage to the Broadway musical “Chicago,” Sherwood Middle School girls sing and dance a powerful number about standing up to the school bullies in “Higher Ground,” a play performed at the Portland Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, March 9 to a sold-out crowd. From left to right: Reese played by Stephanie Johnson, Ali played by Simone Nolden, Sarah played by Genny Torricelli, Chelsea played by Rebecca Brunner, Leticia played by Laura Garcia, and (not pictured) Sid played by Caitlan Mullen.

Hundreds of people drove to Portland's Center for the Performing Arts last month to support Sherwood Middle School students' production of a play their middle school principal banned. When the performance was over, one question remained:'Why was this play so controversial?'

Following a March 9 performance of 'Higher Ground' in Portland, members of the standing-room-only audience questioned why the play couldn't be held at Sherwood Middle School.

Three days before the play - written by teacher Jennie Brown - was to be performed in Sherwood, Principal Anna Pittioni reviewed the play after hearing complaints from a few parents and offered the cast the option of revising it or canceling the production.

In the tradition of 'the show must go on,' the students agreed that changing the script was not an option, and offers of other performance sites poured in after word of the cancellation spread like wildfire.

'I had to consider the students' perspective,' Brown said after the performance. 'I left it up to my cast to decide if the play should go on.'

The play was presented three times in March to capacity crowds at the Brunish Theater in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts.

Ria Torricelli, who acted as mistress of ceremonies and moderator for the 'talk back' following the March 9 performance, said, 'Had this play not been banned, it would have been seen by 150 parents in Sherwood.'

Banning the play may have made 'Higher Ground' the most talked-about middle school play in the country in recent weeks, and Brown said that teachers across the United States have asked her permission to produce it.

'This gives a voice to kids,' she said. 'If it can help somebody (by being produced other places), then by all means, I have no problem with it being presented (across the country).'

A woman in the audience asked, 'Why would school administrators not want to show this?' and Brown replied, 'I think it was a tough call by the administrators. Their backs were to the wall because of comments by a few parents.'

Another woman asked, 'Do (the administrators) pretend that people don't say things like that at school?'

Mitchell Schwabel, who played the main character, Josh, answered, 'They took a lot of stuff out of context. They took one word and not the words around it. What (Miss Brown) was trying to do was make a point.'

'I would love to see this play performed back in Sherwood,' commented a woman. 'How can we do it?'

Brown replied, 'Find a spot to present it.'

When asked if there was 'flack' over the play being performed outside Sherwood when it could not be shown on Sherwood School District property, Brown replied, 'It was written to promote understanding and tolerance among kids. I don't know if there will be flack, but I hope it comes out positive.'

As for the kids whose parents pulled them out of the play, 'the families were very respectful to me about their choice,' Brown said. 'They didn't ask for the play to be canceled. It was a personal call.'

A girl in the cast explained, 'Miss Brown - she doesn't think of us as kids - she thinks of us as young adults.'

The kids in the cast described to the audience how reading the play and acting in it had changed their perspectives on all sorts of issues in a positive way.

'This brought us together,' said a girl. 'I think it's changed the school.'

Another girl added, 'I talked to people I had never talked to before, and now we're friends. It's pretty cool.'

One girl said that the play had brought students in the three different grades together, admitting that sixth-graders are often looked down upon. 'There are sixth-graders in this cast, and they are pretty cool,' she said.

Another student confessed, 'This gave me a new perspective on nerds - they're real people too.'

Yet another student said that the play gave him a different perspective on bullies, because, for example, in the play, Josh's friend Jessica tells him that one of his tormentors, Mitch, probably acts that way because his dad beats his mom.

'This play is watered down from what really happens,' a girl said. 'We're not as innocent as you think we are.'

A woman in the mostly adults-only audience asked the kids in the cast, 'How has this changed you?'

One girl replied, ' When kids get together, something (great) happens - we're determined.'

Another girl answered, 'They cancelled the play because they thought all the bullying would get worse. I think that kids have learned from this that when they used words like 'gay' and 'retard,' they didn't know the effect those words have on people.'

Yet another girl replied, 'I'm now more aware of what I say.'

And a fourth girl replied, 'This showed me how to handle boys. Me and my friends have been bullied - you can learn to stop being (a bully) from this experience.'

On another topic, the Holocaust was mentioned in the play, which some people criticized, but a girl said, 'We learn about it in history - it happened.'

Several students said that they were forbidden to talk about the play at school once it was cancelled.

'After we couldn't talk about it, it felt weird that I'm growing up in America, and I could talk about it at home but not at school,' one girl said.

Another girl added, 'I got in trouble a couple times because teachers caught me talking about it. Miss Brown couldn't talk about it or even write about it.'

Someone else commented, 'It's really stupid that Miss Brown couldn't talk about it… like there's no longer freedom of speech and freedom of the press.'

Yet another girl said, 'We hear worse things in the hallways… it's not like we don't hear those things every day.'

When an audience member asked it the kids had any regrets, one student answered, 'The school doesn't get to have it (performed),' and another girl said, 'I felt really sorry for our school because they need to see it - everyone should see it.'

A girl agreed, saying, 'We were looking forward to our friends seeing it. My only regret is that it has not been performed at school.'

A man in the audience commented, 'It's good to see this group band together (when the play was cancelled). There's real hope for the future.'

Someone else commented, 'I think there's a whole lot of kids this age who could benefit from this.'

A woman added, 'As an elementary teacher, I applaud you. This is nothing that I don't hear every day… I hope the positive message this play has brought will help the situation.'

One woman said, 'I would love to see this play as part of the curriculum,' and another told the actors, 'You did a great job. You're a great group of kids.'

The kids also think highly of Brown.

'Miss Brown rocks,' a girl said, 'Miss Brown is the star of the play.'

As the last of the audience members trickled out of the auditorium, Marilyn Rome, who retired from the Sherwood School District last year, said, 'This is Sherwood's loss. I think Jennie does a good job - she's written other plays. I think she deserved the chance to show her play to all the kids.'