Dramatists Legal Defense Fund Responds To Mid-Show Cancellation of High School Production

A performance of Gabriel Jason Dean's Rift, or White Lies at a local school was shut down by a faculty member abruptly mid-show.

By: Apr. 02, 2024
Dramatists Legal Defense Fund Responds To Mid-Show Cancellation of High School Production
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The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund has issued a response to a recent shutdown of a performance of the Luna Stage production of Gabriel Jason Dean's Rift, or White Lies in the New Jersey school district of Monclair.

According to reports, a performance of the piece at a local school was shut down by a faculty member abruptly mid-show, with no explanation whatsoever.

The district has alleged that administration was not informed of “explicit and violent description of sexual assault as well as misogynistic and homophobic language,” used in the piece. According to the Fund, the company made significant efforts to prepare the school for the production.

According to the Fund, communication between the school district and the community has been unclear and unsatisfactory. 

According to the playwright's website, the play tells the story of, "two brothers--one a progressive novelist; the other a convicted murderer and high-ranking member of a white supremacist prison gang. Though united through their traumatic childhood, these men must now navigate the edges of their brotherly bond.

The work is based on actual events in the life of playwright.

The full Dramatists Legal Defense Fund statement follows:

"The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, established by the Dramatists Guild to defend free expression in the American theatre, is shocked and dismayed by the recent shutdown of a play at Montclair High School in New Jersey. Now, a month later, this action, taken by a public school in contravention of the First Amendment, still has yet to generate an appropriate response from either the school's principal, Jeffrey Freeman, or the Montclair School District.

The interruption and shutdown of Luna Stage's presentation at the school of a selected scene from Gabriel Jason Dean's new play, Rift, or White Lies, was reported on in the local press and, after prodding by the media, the school Superintendent, Dr. Jonathan Ponds, would only state that “I am aware that this incident took place, and I have full faith in the high school administration and staff who are addressing this incident with the students.”

His faith, however, was misplaced because, ten days after the shutdown, Principal Freeman finally made a statement. But, instead of accepting responsibility and announcing procedures to avoid such censorship in the future, he blamed the debacle on the theater for not informing the school of the play's “explicit and violent description of sexual assault as well as misogynistic and homophobic language,” which he claimed was the reason for stopping the presentation in mid- scene.

The problems with Principal Freeman's unsatisfactory statement are so numerous, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let's start with the fact that his statement is untrue. There is a paper trail proving that Luna Stage's director had been in contact with a dozen members of the school faculty and had provided many of them with a synopsis of each scene of the play, along with a list of its mature themes, a content advisory, and links to supporting materials to help teachers contextualize the play for their students, including a lesson plan on white supremacy. In fact, in the director's very first communication with the faculty, she described the play as engaging in “dangerous but necessary conversations across the political divide.” Further, before the performance began that morning, the director made a statement from the stage that provided the audience with another content warning. So, Freeman's assertion that the school was somehow insufficiently aware of the play's content seems a cynical ploy to dodge responsibility and shift blame.

Then there is Freeman's misleading description of the play, claiming it contained “explicit and violent descriptions” and “misogynistic and homophobic language”. Does an imprisoned white supremacist, with a history of being sexually abused, say some things that are upsetting? I would certainly hope those things would be upsetting to any rational audience. But had the scene not been stopped, those words would have been put in a context that challenged and refuted his views.

Not only did the administration prevent the play from providing context, they themselves failed to provide the students and faculty with any context prior to the presentation, a strategy recommended by the theater company. We even understand that some students in attendance were allowed to come in late, after the pre-show warnings, and some of them didn't even know that they were seeing a play!

Furthermore, Principal Freeman's statement failed to acknowledge the school's violation of the First Amendment or suggest how he would deal with the resulting legal liability. While high school students are minors, they do not surrender their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. And when a teacher climbed on that stage to stop the play because they heard words or ideas they were afraid of, or that the administration was afraid of, they were violating not only the rights of the author and theater company to speak, but the rights of the audience to hear. The safety of the students wasn't being jeopardized...their rights were. And by denying those rights, the administration has exposed itself and the district to claims of constitutional violations.

To the extent the safety and well-being of the students may have been endangered by hearing certain words or ideas, it was solely as a result of the school's behavior, not the content of the play. The school failed to prepare students for the presentation and then, when the play was abruptly stopped without explanation, they denied everyone the catharsis of seeing the hateful views challenged and refuted.

After the scene's interruption, the actors offered to discuss the issues raised by the play with the students but were prevented from doing so by the school. All that the theater company could do at that point was offer all the students and faculty free tickets to see the entire play at Luna-Stage/">Luna Stage. By making that offer, the theater was attempting to mitigate the damage caused by the school... damage done not only to those who were present for the shutdown but to the reputation of the theater, the play, and the playwright.

On behalf of the unfairly branded theater company, the play, and the playwright, as well as the faculty, the students, and their families left angry and confused by the school's hysterical overreaction to words they thought they heard that Monday morning, we ask that the school board hold Principal Freeman to account for his actions and require him to establish procedures so that such censorious tactics are not used again in this district.

They may have thought it was time to move on but, as long as they fail to act, this issue remains unaddressed and unforgotten."