The germ of my play, Education, came from a 2002 news story. A high school in Alaska allowed students to attend the Olympic torch relay. One student made a sign to hold up at the event. It read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” The banner was confiscated by the principal and the kid was suspended. I remember watching news coverage of the event. I remember the outrage expressed by local politicians, citizens, and then more outrage from outside the student’s town and state. It became a national story, and it kept it knocking on the door of the kinds of things I find interesting to write plays about.
No offense to Joseph Frederick, the student in question, or to Deborah Morse, the principal, but “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” strikes me as a pretty lame message. I was, however, consistently struck by the out-sized reaction it engendered. I suppose when Jesus is involved, that kind of reaction is certainly always possible, though not necessarily a given. And I don’t know the student, nor have I ever heard him speak, but I wanted the character in my play to be smart in a way that only a few high school seniors know how to be. I wanted the character to make the same kind of gesture, but to have it mean something other than “Hey, weed is great!” (If there was a deeper meaning for Frederick, it has escaped me). So, I started with the flag. There are way too many municipalities in which a boy burning a flag will be a huge deal. It is, after all, Constitutionally protected free speech. When running for office, the current president even floated the idea of criminalizing the gesture. During his State of the Union address, he again harangued the “take a knee” protests of professional athletes during the National Anthem, framing it as “disrespectful” to the flag, while totally ignoring the stated reasons for that protest.
When I was writing the play, I called it Education because I have referred to it as a play about “the failure of education in America…,” but that’s not really accurate. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the education system in America is failing at an alarming rate (I suppose I should add “in my humble opinion”), but it’s not quite what the play is about. What I think it became is a play about how our system of education allows us to kill the artistic spirit and curiosity in the kids we are charged with teaching. It examines how artists grow more often in spite of our system of education and the values we impart even without meaning to, more than because of it. And I get it, I do: it must be hard to teach kids how to read more attentively, how to look at numbers, science, history, etc. To have to figure out how to make room for creative thinking and expression must feel like it gets in the way of how to teach more “practical” subjects. Indeed, there is certainly no good way to “grow” an artist in the first place. So often in America, the first casualty of any budget issue comes down to “Cut. The. Art.” As if it weren’t part of an education.
Another reality stuck it’s head up when I was writing Education: the long gap in America’s political participation. It seemed to me that every 30 years or so there is a natural uprising to push for some change to the status quo: the 1930s was marked by labor strife and striking workers for more income equity; the 1960s was about checking governmental overreach, civil rights, and to pump the brakes (at least slightly) on the military-industrial complex we were warned to guard against. The 1990s? Well, it seemed to me that the ’90s gave us video games and distractions. The lesson learned by corporate and governmental entities was how to distract — or, failing that, to commodify modes of expression, thus gelding it’s potential power. After all, rock ‘n’ roll was born to be the sound of revolt.
Without the Vietnam War, I assume we would still have a such a thing as rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m betting with different heroes and a different sound. During more current wars, rock ‘n’ rollers were kept on such a tight leash by corporate and commercial considerations that it ended up being the freakin’ Dixie Chicks who made the most impact, with an offhand comment introducing a song in a foreign country that wasn’t supportive of the second President Bush. I mean, when the Dixie Chicks are the cutting edge, we’re pretty much divorced from political activism in music on any real level. Rap was always political — but anything that can be “commodified” can also be short-circuited. Michael Jordan’s supposed comment that “Republicans buy sneakers too” squares not at all with the politics of Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali, just a generation before him. The recent political participation of athletes is heartening. I had thought grassroots activism was lost, and so it was something for a playwright to explore, and for Education to be written. Ours is a system in which we’re not only allowed to view the world through chosen values, opinions and beliefs, but we can even get our own “facts” to back them up.
The kids are standing up — first to flying bullets, now to actual death threats, because they have the audacity to mourn 17 of their classmates and want to do something not only so no one else has to hide in a closet while an “active shooter” hunts for more living targets, but so they won’t find themselves in a similar position ever again. They are an echo — back to youth taking up a mantle, weaving it into a cause, taking on the establishment. Which is what I hope Education is about. The hope residing in 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds who have not had time to get jaded. Not yet. A hope that makes a cause, that causes 20-somethings to join in, that causes more mature adults to change their minds about something as simple as protecting the right to Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I am a big fan of the Constitution. Not so great with the country right now. That distinction is difficult for many to parse. But I am, like the young characters in Education, more than willing to have the conversation.
Education, which is directed by Margarett Perry, runs through Apr. 8 at 59E59 Theaters. For tickets, click here.