“Dumb and Dumber” is a movie rated PG-13 for its off-color humor. It may be shown at Arkansas Governor’s School.
But these mostly 17-year-olds may not be assigned “Angels in America,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner. It’s a two-part epic about the AIDS scourge and lots more.
The standard for acceptable material at Governor’s School is PG-13. Anything more provocative, says director Chris Campolo, cannot be presented to a 17-year-old. We learned this first from the Agape Press (“reliable news from a Christian source”). The Agape website, an arm of the American Family Association evangelical political lobby, trumpeted the news that Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office had said students should not have been “exposed” to Kushner’s “sexually explicit” play. Chris Pyle, the governor’s “family policy liaison,” said the assignment of the play by a new teacher violated the “policy on content standards for minors.” He blamed a new instructor unaware of the rules and said one student had left the school on account of her objections. Pyle, who didn’t return our calls, said the play shouldn’t have been assigned on even an optional basis. “…We think that this is not something that taxpayer dollars ought to have been used for,” he said.
What precisely caused such offense? We don’t know if Pyle has read the play. Agape Press called it a “homosexual soap opera.” Campolo, who apologized abjectly to the governor’s office for the assignment of the play, said he had not read it. It was enough, he said, to know that the HBO version of the play was rated TV-MA, for mature audiences. He said it is school policy to ensure that all presentations are “suitable for minors.” If a work of literature doesn’t have a handy cinematic rating, then, Campolo said, officials might read it first before banning it.
No reading was necessary on “Angels.” Said Campolo: “Although its credentials as a serious literary work are not in question, it would not pass the test of our PG-13 policy and it should not have been assigned.”
Governor’s School, meant to challenge bright students, has been tamed. That’s why the governor supports it now. I’d prefer challenges. I trust these kids to view “The Passion of the Christ.” But it’s R-rated for blood and gore and thus could not be screened by students qualified to sign up for war. (Somehow, we doubt Chris Pyle would object.)
Campolo initially didn’t want to discuss the issue, saying it would be “magnifying the distraction.” We eventually exchanged e-mails. He thinks the episode will have no chilling effect, nor does he think mention of homosexuality alone disqualifies a work of literature. (Again, we bet Chris Pyle and the American Family Association, now on a crusade of gay vilification, might have a different view.)
As a regular speaker at Governor’s School, I sensed a chill long before this. It grieves me. My late mother-in-law, Martha Bass, a devoted “church lady,” was the steadfast state supervisor of Governor’s School during some of the early, program-threatening controversies. My children attended. I went to the Louisiana version of governor’s school, where my orchestra instructor was a bassoonist named Sylvia Kushner, Tony’s mother.
A Governor’s School unable to defend the study of “Angels in America” — yes, including the argument that it’s sinful and unworthy of serious scholarship — is a school undeserving of the governor’s name. Unless his name is Huckabee.