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Chicago suburb reconsiders postponing spring musical about gay teens

High school senior Henry Hanson recently watched expectantly as various potential musicals were ticked off the list each day; it’s a tradition that helps get students excited to officially announce Hampshire High’s spring production.

The theater student was eagerly awaiting the announcement of this year’s selection for “The Prom,” a comedy musical about a school that tries to cancel a dance to prevent a gay student from attending. The 18-year-old actor said this year’s production has more meaning than ever because it’s a chance for theater kids who are part of the LGBTQ+ community to feel represented in their own art.

But then regional managers stepped in. They closed out the announcement by telling students at a meeting last Friday that they would not allow the music department to perform this year due to safety concerns.

“It was discouraging when they said we couldn’t do this ‘for your safety’. We’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Hanson said. “Overall, it’s a generally accepting community so I was a little bit shocked.”

“And it’s so ironic, because it was such a tragic way of life imitating art,” Hanson added.

After more than 4,000 people signed online petition and dozens of students, parents and alumni spoke at the school board meeting Tuesday, denouncing the move as “shameful” and “frustrating”; The district in the northwest Chicago suburbs is backtracking on its decision.

District 300 superintendent Susan Harkin said in a statement Tuesday that because of “the strong support we have received from students,” the district is “reconsidering its decision to postpone the music union by developing and implementing a comprehensive safety plan.”

The school initially postponed the musical indefinitely and told students the musical would not take place this year.

Harkin said he will meet with students Thursday to provide an update.

“I would like to clarify that our initial decision to postpone the musical was not related to the students of Hampshire High School or their desire to showcase the progress their school has made in supporting the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “Instead, the postponement reflected concern that the broader District 300 community was prepared to fully support this performance without risking potential harassment, bullying, and violence targeting our LGBTQ+ students, artists, staff, and community members.”

These safety concerns included potential harassment of LGBTQ+ students and faculty.

In her job, Harkin said she has seen attempts to expose students involved in the Gay Straight Alliance, “threats and inappropriate comments” regarding a community meeting for the LGBTQ+ learning space last month, and “hate-filled” emails following the district’s Christmas Day. Silence. The Day of Silence is a national demonstration recognizing the harmful effects of harassment and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students.

“So while I and our school district firmly believe in providing inclusive opportunities that represent and support all District 300 students, I am concerned for the safety of those involved in this situation,” he said.

“Prom” It follows four struggling, narcissistic Broadway stars who want to improve their image by receiving positive media coverage. After learning that parents in a small town in Indiana have canceled the school’s prom to prevent a lesbian teenager from bringing her girlfriend to the dance, the stars decide to help. At one point, the parents decide to hold a prom at a different venue, separating the lesbian teen from her classmates to keep her safe.

The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2018 and was adapted into a Netflix movie, loose based It concerns an incident in 2010 when a high school in Mississippi refused to allow two girls to attend prom as a couple. When one of the students objected, involving the American Civil Liberties Union, the school administration canceled the dance.

Chad Beguelin, who wrote the lyrics for “The Prom” and co-authored the book, shared on social media that he sent an email to the school board and Harkin informing them of the district’s decision about the musical’s “history of bringing people together and its message of inclusion.” “maddening.”

“This show is about accepting everyone, and that’s what we do here. Music and theater in high school are so important for our children to grow not only as musicians and actors, but also to become better people,” said Chris Cherry, music director at Hampshire High School. “They learn empathy, they learn to walk in another person’s shoes. By denying us the opportunity to tell this story, we are missing out on an experience these children deserve.”

School District 300 Superintendent Susan Harkin takes notes during public comments on the board's decision to not authorize the production of Hampshire High School's theater program on Oct. 24, 2023. "Prom."

Cherry, who has been teaching for about 20 years, said that he and his team chose “The Prom” by acquiring the licensing rights at the end of August. Hampshire manager Brett Bending also approved of the show, she said. Cherry said the principal notifies the district if there are any complaints or questions about the musical’s LGBTQ+ themes.

A few days later, Cherry said he was told not to publicize the show and has been in meetings with managers ever since.

“I strongly disagree with their assessment of our building and our community,” Cherry said. “Their line was that Hampshire was not ready for this type of demonstration. Hampshire High School is not prepared to handle all these threats and backlash that would come for having this type of demonstration, and I disagree with both of those points.”

Last Wednesday, Cherry said Harkin told him they could stage “The Prom” next year if they “worked hard enough,” but Cherry said he wasn’t sure what that work would entail. Executives suggested holding community meetings and feedback sessions, something she hadn’t had to do on previous musicals like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Addams Family,” she said.

“I usually put up a few posters,” Cherry said. “It’s a high school musical.”

Two days later, Harkin said he and Adrian Harries, the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, met with more than 100 students who “spoke passionately and respectfully” about their desire to have “Prom.” Harkin announced the district was reconsidering the musical’s postponement for the first time on Monday expression It was published on the district’s website.

“It was frustrating for a lot of us,” Hanson said of the meeting. “We went there to express our opinion and hope they would turn it down, and it felt like they were avoiding some of our more important points.”

While Cherry said it would be possible to change the program selection, he said it would be “a ton of work” to keep up. She said she is hopeful the show will continue.

The senior, who identifies as a member of the theater program and the LGBTQ+ community, said she wants to live in a world where she is allowed to express herself through art. (Tribune is not naming him because he is not an adult.)

“If we cancel things because we’re worried people will be upset, that can very quickly turn into something dangerous—think burning books or silencing people or silencing Florida,” he said. at the meeting.

Trisha Johnson, mother of Hampshire High School senior Julia Johnson, applauds her daughter after speaking out in favor of the school's video production "prom" at the District 300 school board meeting Oct. 24 in Algonquin. "He did well" said the proud mother.

School board member Nancy Zettler said Harkin “failed” the district’s LGBTQ+ community even though he decided to postpone the musical “out of love.”

“We now know that the community is ready. “It is my hope, and I believe with all my heart, that we will be able to put together the safety plan necessary to ensure that this game can go ahead in April.”

Frank Marino, 49, said he has two children at Hampshire High School who were in the musical. Marino said he watched “The Prom” on Netflix and saw many students, especially students in the LGBTQ+ community like his son, see themselves represented in the film.

“My son is proud of who he is. I’m proud of who he is,” Marino said. “And anyone who has a problem with that, I believe that’s just their problem.”

“Did it ever occur to the board or administration when you told the students that the community wasn’t ready for a production like ‘The Prom,’ maybe some of those students heard that the community wasn’t ready for them,” he added. “The idea that this production should be taken away from these children because of the potential actions of a small minority is incomprehensible.”

rjohnson@chicagotribune.com

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