By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer
National media attention is turning to Cincinnati with the cancellation of Paradise, a 50-minute school touring play about the consequences of the war on the West Bank.
Commissioned by Playhouse in the Park, it would have started rehearsals this month and toured in March.
Paradise's New York-based playwright Glyn O'Malley, brought the issue to a boil by claiming his play was blocked from schools by complaints from members of Cincinnati's Muslim community.
O'Malley, whose angry response to the cancellation triggered a story in Monday's New York Times and an invitation from Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, acknowledges that "only a piece (of the controversy) verges toward censorship."
Mr. O'Malley contacted the writers' group PEN America and the Dramatists Guild. PEN first chastised the Playhouse, then commended it for scheduling a free public reading of Paradise for 7 p.m. Feb. 18.
Producing artistic director Ed Stern said the reading was scheduled so that people can decide for themselves whether the play is appropriate for school audiences.
Censorship or no, the Times report has quickened interest in Paradise, which culminates in a suicide bombing by a Palestinian teenage girl.
By midday Monday, O'Malley was fielding calls from "a number of producers who have expressed interest," and Stern had talked to one theater in New York about a reading and sent a script to an interested Boston theater.
"The play is being read, heard about, seen in more places than it would ever have been," as a result of the headlines, Stern noted.
The story of Paradise began a year ago, when Playhouse education director Bert Goldstein read about Ayat al-Akhras, 18, a Palestinian high school senior who killed herself and three other people last March in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. One of the victims was Rachel Levy, an Israeli high school senior.
Goldstein was struck by their similar ages and the topic of children in war. Playhouse awarded O'Malley the 3-year-old Lazarus New Play Prize for Young Audiences, a $5,000 award, to write the script for the theater's educational touring program.
The controversy began Dec. 16 with an informal reading of the work in progress. A handful of community members were invited to comment on details such as historical accuracy and pronunciation.
Among those attending were Rabbi Robert Barr of Congregation Beth Adam; Elizabeth Frierson, professor of Islamic history at University of Cincinnati; Dr. Sharmella Johnson, professor of education at University of Cincinnati; Jad Humeidan of the Council on American Islamic Relations' Ohio chapter in Columbus; and Majed Dabdoub and others representing the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.
Dabdoub, a parent in the Sycamore school district, has become a driving force in objecting to showing Paradise in schools. He feared for his daughters' lives, he said in a Jan. 21 Enquirer story.
O'Malley characterized the Muslim response at the reading as hostile. Barr typified the conversation as "bullying."
A few weeks later, Dabdoub and his colleagues issued a three-page "fact sheet" listing their objections, ranging from inappropriate subject matter to a list of what they saw as "Israeli political propaganda."
Humeidan, whose name is on the "fact sheet," says that he is not one of its sponsors and "has yet to see it."
Humeidan says he was surprised to hear Paradise was canceled. "I personally think that (the play is) a great idea. The U.S. is heavily involved in the Middle East and every citizen should understand what's happening."
His objections to the script, he said, "were to details, not to the play as a whole."
In early January, Dabdoub asked for a hearing before the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission. While questioning and conversation continued for almost 90 minutes at the Jan. 9 meeting, in the closed session that followed "there was strong agreement," says commission Chairman Arthur Shriberg, "that it's not our role to censor anything, anywhere."
Of 25 bookings, only Sycamore High School, contacted by Dabdoub as a concerned parent, had canceled Paradise. Sycamore Principal Keith Kelly canceled the play without reading it. He later decided not to make a final decision before he had read it.
After reading it, he stood by his original decision.
"The last scene was intense," Kelly says, adding that he was concerned about follow-up. "We're not ready to deal with the intensity of emotion that would follow.
"We're not against bringing in difficult subjects," he said. On Monday, Sycamore hosted another Playhouse touring show, The Wrestling Season, which focuses on harmful rumor and sexual identity.
"That's a difficult subject, too," Kelly pointed out.
Stern says that after talking to several teachers (the Playhouse declined to name the other schools on the schedule) after the Sycamore cancellation, he "saw the writing on the wall."
Stern says the Playhouse didn't want to put schools and teachers in the position of being "between a rock and a hard place. We thought it was better to stop it before it became a censorship issue."
After the Human Relations Commission meeting and more objections from Dabdoub, Stern changed directors, replacing Goldstein, who is Jewish, with free-lance director Regina Pugh to avoid accusations of Israeli bias.
Lynne Skilken and Robert Brown, sponsors of the touring program, are upset about the removal of Goldstein but did not pull financial support. "You don't take someone off because they are Jewish or black or green or a woman or had pizza for lunch," Brown says.
Stern discussed the growing controversy with executive board members, but board Vice President Richard Curry, president of Key Bank's Cincinnati district, said there was no time to call a general board meeting.
"You have to know what battles you want to fight," Curry said.
At Wednesday's regular board meeting, a "lively discussion took place," Curry said "I don't think anybody used the word censorship." He still believes "that generally (board members) agreed. This (isn't) something we wanted to fight through."
"It's not a censorship issue," said D. Lynn Meyers, producing artistic director of Ensemble Theatre. "Playhouse is doing a public reading, it's standing behind the playwright and the play.
"Poor Superman (produced by Ensemble in 1994) was censorship, when the board originally said we couldn't do it. This is ignorance and intolerance and people making judgments without being fully informed, which all leads to bigotry and hatred."
Playwright O'Malley said Stern was in "a tremendously difficult position" and finally saw "no way to recall all the rumor and labeling."
O'Malley acknowledges that the national attention is through his efforts. "It's because I was not willing to curl up in a ball and be depressed. Playwrights have rights and I think mine were violated.
"Submitting it to an organ of civic government (Human Relations Commission) - that was the kernel I responded to, that's what pushed my button," he said.
More than a decade after the director of the Contemporary Arts Center was charged with obscenity for an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs and in the wake of the civil unrest of 2001, Stern believes "it's still easy to go after Cincinnati."
"The Cincinnati community is far better than what the nation sees us as."
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