Despite its glamour and prestige in society, drama has always aroused anxiety as well. It seems as though the curtain never comes down on censorship. Somewhere in the world at every moment someone is being told not to do some play. Fortunately and ironically, the conflicts that arise when theater crashes into politics and religion are themselves interesting dramatically. Take Sheri Wilner’s new play Kingdom City, which premieres at UCSB on Friday, February 12. It’s about a New York director working in Missouri who makes the seemingly innocent mistake of casting an American classic, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The trouble arises when her teenage leads, the members of a Christian youth abstinence program, begin to discover the truth not only about colonial Salem, but also about their own version of a witch trial in the aptly named Kingdom City.
Director Risa Brainin has made a specialty out of creating opportunities for her UCSB actors to work with established professional playwrights on new work. Kingdom City represents a further extension of this model through the casting of Equity member and new addition to the UCSB theater faculty Anne Torsiglieri as Miriam Bloom, the New York director. As with Brainin’s other collaborations on premieres, the playwright has been in residence and actively involved in the development of the material through the rehearsal process. I spoke with playwright Sheri Wilner last week about what to expect from the play.
How did you get the idea for Kingdom City? Something like it really happened in Fulton, Missouri. I read about it in the New York Times. A group of Fundamentalist Christian parents complained to the principal of a public high school there about the musical Grease. He looked into it and decided it was inappropriate, and while he was at it, he cancelled the planned spring show as well, which was The Crucible. Apparently nine out of 10 of his colleagues also felt that The Crucible was not appropriate material for high school students to perform. The scary part was that the principal admitted that he hadn’t read The Crucible, but had instead made his decision based on Googling the title and reading a synopsis of the movie! I was stunned. Were there really principals and superintendents of schools out there who needed to Google The Crucible? To me, that was shocking.
So do you show that these people who wanted to censor these kids and these plays were wrong? No, actually, that’s kind of the most interesting part, because when I got down to writing, I found that I did not want to make it a red state vs. blue state story. So, I had to find a way to get inside the heads of these people who were so surprising to me, and to see the thing from their side as well. I had to find an argument against doing The Crucible that I personally could believe. That was the challenge.
And how did you do that? I discovered that it might just be that even if it were not wrong for all high school kids to act The Crucible, it could still be wrong for these particular kids to act The Crucible. I invented a clash of personalities, and imagined a group of individuals and agendas that would make putting on The Crucible at this high school, with these actors, the wrong thing to do. And that is what my New York couple, the director and her husband, have to confront.
How intriguing. Can you say any more about what this entails? Sure. It’s just showing that everything needs to be understood on a case-by-case basis. These specific students relate too closely to their roles. The girl who plays Abigail is too sexualized to begin with to handle the part, and it goes on from there.
Kingdom City runs from Friday, February 12, through Saturday, February 20, at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater. For tickets and information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu or call 893-7221.