The Magazine

Muslim P.C. in Cincinnati

How to kill a play before it ever reaches the stage.

Feb 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 22 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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SOMETIME IN THE SECOND WEEK of January, Ed Stern, artistic director at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park, called Glyn O'Malley with an apology. "I don't think I've ever f--d a playwright over," Stern said, "the way I've f--d you." Five months earlier, the Playhouse, flagship of Cincinnati's arts establishment, had announced O'Malley as the winner of its Lazarus New Play Prize for Young Audiences. For several years the Playhouse had staged a traveling drama for high school students. This was the most prestigious corner of its school theater program, which reached 30,000 kids a year. The theater used the traveling series not just to introduce the young to the power of drama, but also--so it thought--to challenge them to think about nettlesome social issues. Thus, for instance, in the summer of 2001, with Cincinnati still reeling from serious race riots weeks before, the Playhouse selected Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror, which strung together anecdotage from anti-Semitic race riots in Crown Heights a decade earlier.

By the standards of the pre-September 11, 2001, world, that was hot stuff. But we no longer live in that world. For the Playhouse's 2003 spring season, Bert Goldstein, the director of educational programming, sought a drama that would bring home the stakes of terrorism and the "effects of war on children." He suggested O'Malley work from one of the most widely read Newsweek cover stories in recent years. It told the story of the March 2002 suicide bombing carried out by 18-year-old Ayat al-Akhras, a young woman living in the Dehaishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem, that killed (among others) 17-year-old Israeli Rachel Levy, out shopping for sabbath dinner. It was a grisly incident, but as Goldstein would later say of the play's intended high school audience, "the kids are not babies." The work was to be called Paradise.

Stern, a New Yorker, has always courted "controversy." The Playhouse has staged shows by Tim Miller, whom Stern calls "the nation's leading gay performance artist"; it is showing this season Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, which, Stern says, "raises questions of American imperialism at a time when they are again becoming relevant." This is a city whose arts community looks at the politics of free expression as a struggle between light and darkness: between the cosmopolitan activists who defended Robert Mapplethorpe's posthumous exhibit at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, which included a photo of the artist with a bullwhip jammed in his anus; and the embarrassing galoots in the sheriff's office who were unsophisticated enough to have it raided. The Playhouse was comfortably on the side of the cosmopolitans.

Of course, one man's bold experimentation is another's political correctness--and a cynic might suggest that the Playhouse would be a most inhospitable venue for a play that, say, lauded American imperialism, or made fun of "the nation's leading gay performance artist." Such cynics are likely to be more numerous after what happened with Paradise. Because when a dozen hard-line Cincinnati Muslims decided to protest O'Malley's play before he had even finished writing it, the theater's leadership quailed, its donor base panicked, the city's anti-racism bureaucracy began to meddle, its school system scampered for cover from threatened lawsuits, and Paradise collapsed like a house of cards. That's when Ed Stern called Glyn O'Malley.

O'MALLEY, 51, is an Edward Albee protégé who has built a solid career directing works by Albee and A.R. Gurney, as well as his own plays. He has his fans and his detractors. Verdicts on his work range from "shapeless" to "sweetly affecting." He knows his way around political controversy and genuine artistic danger. In the mid-1980s, with Albee, he visited Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, at a time when Havel, briefly released from prison, was dividing up his manuscripts and hiding parts of each in separate villages so that Communist authorities could never seize an entire play. O'Malley has since been active in PEN's Freedom to Write project.