Emphasizing the play's themes of love, tolerance and acceptance, several students and supportive friends and family members pleaded their case to the Plainfield School District 202 school board on Tuesday, asking officials to overturn a decision by administrators to nix a spring performance of the musical "Rent."
Students had hoped to perform a "school edition" of the play that they acknowledged is edgy, but said is a toned-down version of the Tony Award-winning original.
READ: Students Fight Back After School Shuts Down 'Rent'
In the end, district administrators praised their passionate speeches, but sided with Plainfield High School – Central Campus administrators, who rejected plans to stage the show.
Plainfield Central students told the school board they learned late last week that administrators would not allow them to perform "Rent: School Edition," which is based on Jonathan Larson’s Broadway hit about a group of young struggling artists and musicians coping with poverty, AIDS and drug addiction. Some of the characters are openly gay.
The school edition omits one of the original songs, eliminates some of the coarse language and tones down some of the displays of affection.
“Unfortunately, this musical seems to be too controversial for some, and I understand the apprehension towards its approval,” Plainfield Central junior Thomas Rietz said. “But this musical will help enrich the curriculum.
“It’s explorations of the truths like these that enrich us as people and allow us to make the right choices,” he said. “Simply put, learning from others' mistakes is very important.”
Rietz said freshmen students are taught in health class about sex, drugs and making good choices. Exploring these topics through art will reinforce what students are taught in school, he said.
Many high school students have already been exposed through various media to the same messages in “Rent,” including sex, STDs and drug use, Rietz added.
“It conveys messages of love, equality and embracing the life you have,” Plainfield Central junior Betsy Lugo said. “It helped me learn the realities of our imperfect world. It exemplifies how the world is and the harsh realities it brings.”
Student Alexandra Smith said “Rent” promotes an anti-bullying message that the district also emphasizes.
Smith said many novels students read for class and many previous performances have had controversial content.
For instance, she said, last spring’s show, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” featured sexual innuendos, drunkenness and extramarital affairs. “West Side Story” features a rape scene and “Grease” shows teenage pregnancy, drinking and smoking.
Lugo added that the school’s male cheerleaders who dress like women and perform explicit dance moves are laughed at, but there may be students at Plainfield Central who have a gender identity disorder, and their problems cannot be discussed.
“Let us show our message of love and prove our maturity,” she said.
Superintendent John Harper said he was unaware until this weekend that the students were planning to perform “Rent” or that building principals rejected the play based on inappropriate content.
But he and school board President Roger Bonuchi said that they stand by the decisions made by Principal Robert Smith, Assistant Principal Mary Boyd and other staff that the play is inappropriate for the school.
Neither Smith nor Boyd responded to email or voicemail messages left by Patch.
Harper said the district does not discriminate against sexual orientation or deny alcohol or drug use. The district is also not trying to hide from the “realities of the community, state and world,” he said.
“We typically shine lights on problems,” he said.
But some of the lyrics, which include lines such as “I’m like a cat in heat,” or “I didn’t notice you without the handcuffs,” were inappropriate for high school students, Harper said.
Many of the themes, including being anti-middle class or anti-authority, were also among the reasons cited to deny the play.
He said the play was rejected as a matter of appropriateness, and the building principals know the school best.
“I respect and appreciate not only your opinions, but the integrity it took to voice those opinions to the board of education,” Harper told the students.
Rietz said after the meeting that he is disappointed, but was happy to share his opinions on the show.
He hopes to meet with Central's principals and continue the conversation “responsibly and respectfully," he said.