Taking our penguins elsewhere

Paul Marbach

“And Then Came Tango”, a play written for second-and-third-grade audiences, which I am the composer and music director for, is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who formed a pair bond, built a nest together, raised an egg of their own and hatched Tango, a healthy baby penguin. The piece uses dance, music, dialogue and pedagogy to guide young audiences through a tender issue in a controlled, engaging way that focuses on student voices.

Work on “Tango” began about two years ago, and this semester the UT Department of Theatre and Dance planned to perform the show at 10 Austin Independent School District elementary schools as part of the 2012 Theatre for Young Audiences tour.

That plan fell through Monday night.

We had anticipated controversy, so the production team spent last semester organizing the tour with AISD. The content of the play was made known to AISD administrators in a transparent way. Thumbs-up were given. If there were problems with the play, then would have been the right time for administrators make it known.

Still, after the first show at Lee Elementary on Oct. 16, the tour was put on hold when school administrators, particularly Lee Elementary’s principal, expressed concern that the play contained themes of “sex and sexuality.” The tour was immediately stopped to allow for review by AISD principals and administrators.

While many in AISD supported the play, the district’s leaders became consumed by gridlock, throwing into doubt the possibility of a resolution.

With four cancelled performances, unresponsive AISD representatives and a semester quickly slipping away, the Theatre and Dance faculty needed to ensure that the UT theatre students in the production still had a chance to tour. They made the tough call to cancel the remaining AISD shows and focus on finding private schools, charter schools and non-AISD schools that would have us.

I can see why human sexuality would be a bad thing to put in front of second-graders. Sexual education begins (at the earliest) in fifth grade in Texas. But LGBT families aren’t a human sexuality topic. You can’t simply avoid talking about a particular minority in schools because you’re afraid it’s too controversial. Just ask any AISD student with two moms or a gay uncle. Seeing a non-traditional family in a place where queer voices are completely unrepresented would have made an important impact on students’ ability to communicate with one another about the evolving 21st-century family. Missing the opportunity to make that kind of impact is what upsets me most about the tour’s cancellation.

Suppression of dialogue about LGBT families in public elementary schools isn’t just heteronormative. It’s outright homophobic. It tells LGBT parents that there isn’t a place at the table for them or their kids — not until fifth grade, anyhow.

And “Tango” is at its core about families, not sexuality. It includes single-parent households, like the one our protagonist Lily comes from, as well as two-parent heterosexual families, like other penguin pairs in the play. And, yes, two-parent LGBT families, like Roy and Silo’s. The implication that “And Then Came Tango” is too risque for second-graders in a city like Austin, Texas, illustrates just how important it is that we get this play into public schools to do our part to stop homophobia.

This controversy isn’t about sex or sexuality; it’s about fear — election-year fears, fear of parental backlash, anxiety over the possibility of lost jobs in the school district’s administration. These fears ultimately led to a pocket veto and tacit censorship by the leadership of AISD. Here’s hoping that the next crack they get at expressing tolerance and accepting new realities goes better. Until then, the penguins of “Tango” will tour elsewhere.

But we sure ruffled some feathers, didn’t we?

Marbach is composer and music director for “And Then Came Tango.”