“It was brought to the District’s attention that the current production contained mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content,” reads the communication from Sherman High School in Sherman, Texas. “Unfortunately, all aspects of the production need to be reviewed, including content, stage production/props, and casting to ensure that the production is appropriate for the high school stage.”
The scurrilous, sensual, and shocking show in question? Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! The date of this communication? November 6, 2023.
It would be easy to simply find this ludicrous. Oklahoma! is, after all, widely considered to be the first musical of the modern era, a landmark of marrying song and story. It was a long-running smash that was seen as representing the best of America in its original run, which overlapped with World War II; there are many stories of military inductees seeing the show just before they were sent over to the war in Europe, or as the first thing they did when the returned stateside. Oklahoma! as Americana may gloss over the subject of how the territory was opened to white settlers by banishing the indigenous residents, but it’s worth noting that the musical was faithfully based on a play by Lynn Riggs, a member of the Cherokee nation.
The widescreen movie in 1955 starred Shirley Jones and Eddie Albert among others, and has been played and replayed on television, home video and streaming seemingly ever since. There have been multiple Broadway revivals and it’s popular outside the US as well; over two decades ago, a production at London’s National Theatre made a star of an unknown Australian named Hugh Jackman.
Oh, and Oklahoma! was the single most popular musical in US high school theatre nationally in the 1960s and 1970s, before falling into the second position in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s the salacious tract that Sherman, Texas officials feel they need to clean up for public consumption. Presumably they will next be coming for that cesspool of sin, Annie. Mind you, Sherman High has produced Oklahoma! at least twice before, the most recent production coming less than 10 years ago.
Looking deeper into the school’s statement comes this peculiar language: “There is no policy on how students are assigned to roles. As it relates to this particular production, the sex of the role as identified in the script will be used when casting. Because the nature and subject matter of productions vary, the District is not inclined to apply this criteria to all future productions.”
What’s that about precisely? It’s about the fact that last week, the powers-that-be at Sherman decided that students must be cast according to the gender which they were identified by at birth, and in the case of the trans male student cast as Ali Hakim, that meant Max Hightower was being removed from his role with zero clarity as to whether he would receive any other role, as most assuredly wouldn’t get one according to his gender identity. This despite the fact that Oklahoma! has been open to cross-gender casting for a number of years, as well as multi-racial casting, so it is not trapped in the limitations of the era in which it was first produced by rigid rights holders.
Philip Hightower, Max’s dad, retells the story of how this casting edict was shared with parents, saying that he received a call last Friday from the school principal, explaining the new policy that was being imposed. After this brief call, Hightower immediately tried reaching Max’s guidance counselor, so the student might have some immediate support when informed of the decision. Reaching a different counselor, as Max’s was unavailable, Hightower asked for a copy of the new policy. Hightower says the counselor seemed completely flustered and had no idea where to find such a thing.
“I do want to stress this,” says Hightower, “because I think it really shows the current state of education, especially in Texas. This guy wanted to empathize with me, like really on a personal level. He would start all these sentences about caring and never finishing. The one that sticks out the most is he said, ‘You know, man to man,” and there was a long pause. ‘Father to father.’ He never finished. They’re terrified. They’re terrified of this situation, they don’t know what to do.”
Hightower said that on getting home from work, he expected to find a profoundly upset Max. But that wasn’t the case.
“I realized I should have thought better because I know Max,” said Hightower. “Max is a fighter, The first thing he said to me when I came in was something along the lines of, ‘Can you believe this shit?’ I said, ‘Max, what do you want me to do?’ I told him, I’d reached out to the local news. And he said, “I want to fight.”
While initially, going into the weekend, local media was slow to pick up on the story, but after Hightower and his wife posted their accounts of the situation on social media, they were met first with a groundswell of local support, and then local outlets began to do interviews. As of Tuesday afternoon November 7, The New York Times was on the case.
But does Hightower think the decision can be altered?
“No,” he flatly declares. “You don’t know these people. These people here have the majority and they know it. And they don’t care. I mean, we’ve seen it every day.”
Brett Boessen, parent of another Sherman high student, his daughter Lucy, who was cast in the play, says the recent actions have given him a new perspective on what’s happening in his community.
“This one decision,” said Boessen, “more than any other decision that I’ve seen, that the school has made in the past year or two, has got me really thinking that school board elections are important. There are some people on the board right now who need to be removed when the next election happens in the spring. This just is not a way to protect and nurture students in the school system. It sends absolutely the wrong message to students about how the school board thinks about them and everything else.”
Boessen, who was speaking as a parent but happens to be the chair of the Communication, Media, and Theater Department at Austin College, was also skeptical of what might be done.
“I would hope that the parents would be upset about this in sufficient enough numbers to be able to make some kind of change,” said Boessen. “But I’ll be honest, I think a lot of people have real fears right now. Maybe some of them are unfounded. But maybe some of them are realistic about the kind of pushback and reprisal that people make on social media, but then through social media in the real world might have against people who speak out and who say something about these kinds of policies. So I’m not holding my breath that the community will stand up and say, ‘Absolutely not, this is this is wrong, get this fixed right away.’ I don’t know that that will happen. Even if there is a kind of majority sentiment, I think a lot of it is probably silent.”
As if the motivations of the school administration and board were not self-evident in their attempts to suppress and deny trans identity, it’s worth noting that the Sherman school district has adopted a program called “Stand in the Gap.” It is described on the Sherman Independent School District website in detail, but the following stands out:
For this year, we’re going a step further and asking our church congregations and community to “Stand In The Gap” for us. Stand in the gap between the challenges of this world and our staff and students through prayer.
The gap is ostensibly the place where families and communities have “failed,” taking in loco parentis far beyond its intent to a place of superseding the parental role. This alignment of church and state, as opposed to separation, suggests that Sherman has taken a theological approach to education, going on to outright ask for prayers for staff and students. Even though one of their tenets is “protection from harm,” such protection is being decided selectively, presumably something that can be lain at the feet of the school superintendent, Dr. Tyson Bennett, who signed the Stand in the Gap policy. They appear not to be concerned about protecting trans and queer students, or students who just want to find a good part in a show.
There are some dark elements of Oklahoma! that director Daniel Fish emphasized in his radical reworking of the show for a production that played to acclaim in New York and London, and on national tour. But high schools aren’t pursuing that interpretation. Someone has suggested to Sherman High officials that such darkness must be rooted out, such as the wanton Ado Annie, who perhaps kisses a few too many men, or the scantily clad women tacked up in Jud Fry’s shed. In keeping with the time period in which it was written, Oklahoma! is decidedly chaste, if not completely sanitized.
In their statement, Sherman High suggests a production will go forward, after these troubling elements have been addressed. But they should be reminded that they can’t simply alter the work to suit their tastes, and of course they’ve really brought these elements up as a smokescreen to distract from their retrograde attitudes about student identity.
Will a production happen, delayed by a few weeks? That remains to be seen, and there’s a school board meeting at the beginning of next week, but according to Phillip Hightower, a significant number of cast members have already quit the production. So Sherman may not only clean up Oklahoma!, but eradicate their school musical. Perhaps that’s what they really want. But that’s not what’s best for their students. That’s why voices in Sherman, when it comes to transphobia and censorship, contrary to Ado Annie’s plaintive cry, must say “No!”