This Won't Be Your Typical High School Debate : Theater: Arizona school's cancellation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play spurs a censorship forum Monday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Monday, free-speech activists from the East Coast, as well as a bevy of prominent TV and movie stars from the West, will meet in Tucson because Tucson's Flowing Wells High School canceled a school play.

While this may seem like an issue for the local PTA, Washington, D.C.'s People for the American Way (a group founded by Norman Lear and dedicated to protecting First Amendment rights), local representatives of New York's Rockefeller Foundation as well as a Hollywood contingent--William Baldwin, Christopher Reeve, Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry, Mercedes Ruehl, Harry Hamlin, Blair Brown and Estelle Parsons--are coming to Tucson because they believe the cancellation of the high school's 1992 production of "The Shadow Box" is part of a growing trend of censorship in public schools.

Tucson's Temple of Music and Art Theater will be the site of "Tucson Talks: An Issue of Free Speech." The evening will begin with a staged reading of "Shadow Box," a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama exploring the issues of death and dying. The play, which made its debut in 1977 at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, includes a portrayal of a homosexual relationship. The actors will read an edited version of the play that the drama teacher, Carole Marlowe, had planned to present to the high school audience. Marlowe was forced to resign as a result of the incident.

Following the reading, there will be a panel discussion of the issue of censorship in the schools, with community representatives of both the "left" and "right" of the issue, which will be presented live on local access cable stations in Tucson.

Participants range from University of Arizona law professor Charles Ares, who contends that the school has a mandate to resist pressure to censor from the religious right and other factions of the community, to the Rev. A.B. Blair, pastor of Tucson's Golf Links Baptist Church, who says that the school is not only not guilty of censorship but carries the responsibility to expunge "vulgar" language and stop "tearing down the moral fiber that we've been building in this country for 200 years."

Hamlin said he is participating because "whether it's a small town in Arizona or New York City, we need to be cognizant of what's going on. I don't know if it's presumptuous for a group from a more cosmopolitan area to go into a more suburban or rural community; they may think so. But from where I sit, I am an American and I think we all deserve a fair shake. And if I can participate in any way in making that happen, I am going to do it."

Said Christopher Reeve: "It would be easy for someone from the religious right to say, 'They are all just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals from Hollywood.' . . . But I go back to a survey that was taken by the People for the American Way ("Attack on the Freedom to Learn," released in September of this year) which was not taken in New York and L.A., but in the 'flyover states,' which indicate that people (there) are not threatened by the arts.

"I would like some people in Tucson to end up regretting the firing of Carole Marlowe. I think it certainly is a case that rings an alarm bell."

People for the American Way president Art Kropp said that he hopes Tucson can become a model for the rest of the country in dealing with First Amendment issues. "We told (the Tucson community), 'No one wants to hold you up for ridicule as the nation's bad boy, that we think we know better--we don't. We asked Tucson to be partners with us on these gut-wrenching issues."

In spite of firm denials from school principal Nic Clement, some of the visitors from the coasts believe the forced resignation of Marlowe, a former District Teacher of the Year, negates the school's insistence that it canceled the play only because of "language." Instead, they suggest the action represents a smoke screen for homophobia on the part of the school district.

Marlowe says she had planned to edit all questionable language from the play--as has been standard practice in the drama school department for years, she says. But school principal Clement said Marlowe was asked to resign because she allowed scenes that Clement had approved only for a classroom competition to be performed during a schoolwide arts week before an audience that also included a visiting class of fifth graders.

Representatives of People for the American Way and the Rockefeller Foundation say Monday's reading will be the start of a series of First Amendment forums in Tucson that they hope will become a model for the rest of the country. They also said that they plan to focus on general issues, rather than the specifics of why the school asked Marlowe to resign.

But Clement said those specifics determine whether or not this, indeed, represents an issue of censorship or merely a personnel dispute. He also complained that representatives of People for the American Way never talked to him before crying censorship. Kropp said that Clement was present at an interview with school district officials conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation, and that the school district has never challenged the facts of the case.

"People are overlaying the values of a community theater, or Hollywood, the norms they live under, and they are overlaying them on a high school, " said Clement. "They have generalized Flowing Wells and Tucson.

"And number two, they are going to discuss this (based on) limited information . . . I don't see how they can have this forum without indicting the school and indicting me ."

Marlowe remains out of work and is exploring options for going into social work, stressing child abuse and welfare issues. "I do not want to go back to that school, but I very much want to see the teachers who work there be able to teach without teaching in such fear," she said.

"The thing that really gets me is I did a lot of work with kids over a lot of years, and I know there are so many things out there that can really hurt kids. Good literature is not one of them."

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