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A Frustrated Nation Takes It Out on the Arts

If there was an outburst of raging goofiness in the days before Pearl Harbor was bombed, the history books I read certainly neglected to mention it.

But it seems that increasing tensions throughout the world over the crisis in the Middle East may be the only explanation for the rash of absurd controversies over arts and entertainment that cropped up this week.

First, the board of directors at the La Habra Community Theatre’s board quashed a director’s plan to cast a mixed-race couple in the leads for her production of “Romeo and Juliet,” saying, among other things, that they didn’t want a Shakespeare play saddled with a message.

Then the honchos planning next month’s inaugural festivities for the John Wayne Airport called an emergency meeting to deal with the ruckus over a painting of a winged male torso a la Icarus slated for use on the new terminal’s official poster.

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As if that weren’t enough nuttiness right here in Orange County, several radio stations around the country decided to ban records by Irish pop star Sinead O’Connor because she objected to the playing of the national anthem before a concert she gave in New Jersey.

What could be behind this proliferation of teapot tempests except misplaced frustrations over impending major trauma?

It’s mind-boggling enough that some government officials are paying more attention to one small-potatoes rap group from Florida than to the financial crisis looming from a national debt of nearly $3 trillion. (For those of you who don’t normally get paid in trillions, if you owed this much to your bank and were making payments of $10,000 a day, after one year you’d have paid back more than $3 million. It would be 300 years before you’d reach $1 billion and it would take almost a million years to pay off the full debt. And that doesn’t include the interest, which is compounding the tab by something like $500 million per day.

Now that Saddam Hussein has unexpectedly made it anybody’s guess whether the United States will be facing another Vietnam, minus the rubber trees, to what battlefield does the nation turn its eyes?

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The arts.

How controversial would it have been to stage an interracial “Romeo & Juliet” in La Habra? Somewhat less than the rounding up of hostages in Baghdad, I’d venture.

But I can certainly sympathize with the objections against turning this medieval soap opera into a “message play,” as some board members protested. A plague o’ both your houses--that would make worms’ meat of him!

And the airport art poster? The complaint was raised by an airport commissioner who had volunteered the services of his printing plant to produce it. He objected because the male Icarus figure (representing flight) was nude. But even more troubling to him was the absence of any airplanes or something more appropriate for commemorating the John Wayne Airport terminal. (Maybe, as a colleague suggested, a still from the Duke’s 1951 classic “Flying Leathernecks” would have satisfied all concerned, since it would include Wayne, dive bombers and the Marines, all in one tidy image.)

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As it turned out, the airport arts commissioners endorsed the original artwork on Wednesday and are expected to formally approve it at a meeting on Saturday. With that out of the way, one hopes focus might return to more significant matters, like whether all the landing lights are plugged in by opening day.

As to the Sinead O’Connor hubbub--why, I haven’t heard of such an outrage since Roseanne Barr muffed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in San Diego. As long as we’ve got some momentum for a constitutional amendment barring any damage, physical or otherwise, to the American flag, we probably ought to come up with a rider protecting the national anthem from defamation, denigration or off-key renditions.

Better still, with so much tension everywhere we turn, we need to get our mind off these weighty problems with a nice diversion, such as a good play, a concert or a movie. It doesn’t matter which, as long as it’s one with airplanes. And no Sinead O’Connor.


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