Canceling The School Play Won't Avoid 'Kismet'

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There will be no Kismet in Johnstown, Pa. This week the Richland School District canceled February's high school student production of the play.

The 1953 musical is the story of a wily beggar-poet; his unruly, beautiful daughter; and the handsome caliph who falls in love with her at first glance.

Kismet is adapted from that collection of folk tales known as Arabian Nights, with a score drawn from the music of Alexander Borodin.

Kismet won the Tony Award for Best Musical. High school groups often perform the show because the songs can be lush and funny, there are good parts for both boys and girls, and the costumes can be colorful, florid, flowing — and cover students from head to toe. Unlike the musical Hair.

Kismet is set in ancient Baghdad, a time historians call "The Islamic Golden Age." Johnstown is in western Pennsylvania.

"Flight 93 flew right over our heads," school Superintendent Thomas Fleming Jr. explains.

United Airlines Flight 93, of course, plowed into the ground nearby on Sept. 11, 2001, after the hijackers were overpowered by the passengers and crew. They died to keep the plane from crashing into the U.S. Capitol.

"So it's understandable that people might be a little more sensitive perhaps to the (play's) content," Mr. Fleming told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.

He said several people had complained because Kismet features Muslim characters; the 10-year anniversary of Flight 93's crash had just passed. Mr. Fleming says he simply doesn't want his young students to have to face controversy and criticism.

But I wonder if it might not be good for students to learn how Kismet can rile some people as much as David Mamet. As Sir Ben Kingsley says, "Theater is seeing strangers onstage and recognizing yourself."

Howard Sherman of the American Theatre Wing says complaints about high school productions are increasing. It's not always about profanity, nudity or politics. Some people complain about South Pacific because of its interracial romance. Others because a song says, "There is nothing like a dame," not, "there is nothing like a strong feminine role model."

Trying to have theater without carping and criticism is like trying to play baseball without getting clipped by the ball now and then. An occasional bruise means you're playing the game with heart.

The Johnstown students will perform Oklahoma! instead. Oklahoma! is a great musical. But does the school district know that one of the signature characters is a peddler who comes to the Oklahoma territory of gushers and sodbusters to find freedom and his own fortune?

He's from Persia. His name is Ali Hakim. I wonder if the Johnstown students will have to rename him Al.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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