SHE could not look at her principal. The words coming out of his mouth infuriated her.
There would be no play about the war in Iraq, he told the drama class at Wilton High School: The topic was too controversial, too complicated.
Sitting in the front row of the campus theater on a March morning, Erin Clancy squeezed another drama student’s hand and tried to hold back tears. They had been preparing for the production of “Voices in Conflict” for two months. One student sitting onstage began to yell and curse. The performing arts department head ordered her to address the principal with respect.
Erin didn’t want to offend him either. In her four years at Wilton High, she had grown to like the principal. But this play meant more to her than others she had acted in, like “West Side Story” and “Grease.” She had to say something.
Her voice trembled. She was 18 — old enough to fight in the war, Erin told him, and old enough to vote for leaders who send people to war. So why couldn’t she perform in a play about it?
It was not open for debate. Principal Timothy Canty told the students his mind was made up.
He left, and the students swarmed their drama teacher. It had been Bonnie Dickinson’s idea for them to research the war and come up with monologues based on the words of U.S. soldiers culled from documentaries, books and articles. Dickinson had stayed quiet during the principal’s talk. The students asked her: What do we do now?
Dickinson told them she didn’t think there was anything they could do: He was the principal, and he made the rules.
The students talked of writing letters to the local newspaper or protesting the principal’s decision. There had to be something they could do to change his mind.
It didn’t seem fair, Erin recalled telling her father in their family room later that evening. There was a war going on, and she wanted her classmates to care about it.
IT started as an end-of-the-year project.
Dickinson, 53, a drama teacher at Wilton High School for 13 years, wanted her students to perform something with substance. She thought of a former Wilton High student, Nicholas Madaras, who had joined the Army after graduating in 2005. He was killed in September by a roadside bomb. Dickinson had not followed news about the war closely but figured she could learn about it, along with her students, by creating a play.
She began collecting sources in which soldiers had talked about their experiences. The goal, she told the class, was to present different viewpoints. They would piece together a series of vignettes from real-life characters.
One of several documentaries students watched for their research was called “The Ground Truth,” in which veterans condemned the war and their treatment by the military after returning home from Iraq. Many supporters of the war consider it a biased film. To balance the students’ references, Dickinson found books and articles in which soldiers talked proudly of their job, and the importance of fighting for freedom.
The veterans in “The Ground Truth” touched some of her students. James Presson, 16, could not get Navy veteran Charlie Anderson out of his mind. In the film, Petty Officer 2nd Class Anderson, 30, talked about suffering from post-traumatic stress, and how his life fell apart after fighting in Iraq.
James was named after his uncle, who died fighting in the Vietnam War. He watched the news daily, and couldn’t understand why his teachers did not discuss the war in his social studies classes. He often noticed yellow ribbons, American flags, and “Support Our Troops” banners in Wilton, an affluent community of 18,000 about 50 miles northeast of New York City. But he seldom heard anyone talk about why the troops were fighting and dying.
Watching the film, James wondered how Anderson must have felt to come home to a daughter who didn’t remember him and a marriage that fell apart. He thought about what it would be like to go from being a proud U.S. soldier to a lonely veteran who could not find a job.
James wanted to act Anderson’s story.
Erin, who loves wearing high heels and anything pink, was surprised she identified with soldiers who had shot people and lost limbs. She empathized with the young woman who joined the military to pay for college and ended up agonizing over starving children in Iraq.
Something Anderson said in the documentary stuck with Erin too. He talked about coming home from the war and trying to relate to his friends:
“It’s just that our priorities were different,” he said. “It was hard finding friends. People were boring to me, not that I was that interesting of a person. I just always thought they talked about stupid stuff.”
Before working on this play, Erin used to listen to reports about Paris Hilton. Now she pays attention to news about soldiers killed in Iraq. Her friends outside of drama class didn’t understand her preoccupation.
After her research, Erin concluded that she supported the war. She believed the government should finish what it started. She wanted other students to learn enough to form their own opinions too.
The class had not finished putting together a script when the principal called the drama teacher into his office. Canty told Dickinson that parents were concerned about the play’s content, she later recalled. A student, whose brother was serving in Iraq, had expressed interest in performing in the play. But once the student got involved, she disagreed with its direction because she felt it was antiwar. Her mother complained to the school.
Dickinson offered to revise the script, but Canty was not satisfied. When he visited the class, students asked whether they could perform the play for their parents. Canty said no. They could not perform the play at Wilton High, or anywhere else.
A few days later, someone tipped off the media.
The drama students suspected it was a parent, angry that the play was canceled. Local and national television programs and newspapers did stories. Strangers from across the world encouraged the students, and soldiers stationed in Iraq sent words of support, including Anderson from “The Ground Truth.”
Then came the backlash. Someone had started a Facebook Web page criticizing the drama class. One posting said the students should be “hanged for treason.” Others called them “worthless” and “unpatriotic” kids with “liberal pig parents.”
At first, the drama students were scared and nervous to return to school. In hallways, kids tried to pick fights with them. Others talked behind their backs or shouted: “You take that play somewhere else!”
The girl with a brother in Iraq had been friends with many on the cast, but she stopped speaking to them.
“Our student body has very much rejected our play,” Erin said, “and everything we stand for.”
James learned to shrug off the name-calling and glares. He tried instead to explain to people why he felt so strongly about the play.
“Getting away from the body counts and images is OK,” he said. “You need to escape and watch ‘American Idol’ or ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ But there are times when the real facts must be faced. We’ve got something huge going on.”
Supt. Gary Richards issued a statement calling the script’s language “graphic and violent,” and said allowing students to act as soldiers “turns powerful material into a dramatic format that borders on being sensational and inappropriate.”
Outraged by the censorship, professional theater directors contacted Dickinson. A Connecticut playhouse invited the students to perform there, and two New York venues asked to feature “Voices in Conflict” off-Broadway in June.
A 1st Amendment attorney who had heard about the play contacted Dickinson. He offered to represent her pro bono. With the lawyer’s backing, the class made a decision that the school administration did not fight.
The students were headed to New York.
GRADUATION and the play were a month away. Erin stayed busy preparing for the ceremony, taking final exams and practicing her lines at night. The days grew more hectic. For most of the students, their biggest audiences had been made up of friends and family. Now it would be theater-lovers and reporters. In June, they had three hourlong performances scheduled in Connecticut and three in New York.
Dickinson coached the actors late into the night. They rewrote the script at the last minute, incorporating letters from soldiers and the students’ experiences after the principal banned the play.
The teacher smiled and teased the students during rehearsal, but she had her own worries — the school had placed her under administrative review. Her attorney, Martin Garbus, said Dickinson had been accused of trying to present a biased play that violated copyrights, mobilizing the students to follow her political agenda and lying about what was in the script.
It would be weeks before the administration concluded Dickinson’s job was safe. Until then, she tried not to let it discourage her.
“This is high school with kids who could, at any minute, enlist,” she said. “We have recruiters in the cafeteria all the time. They wanted to learn about the war. Can’t they learn about it for God’s sake?”
IN 20 minutes, the final show in New York would begin. Inside the Public Theater, the cast gathered in a basement dressing room, littered with their McDonald’s bags and Starbucks cups. It was the same building where “Hair,” a play about hippies opposed to the Vietnam War, had premiered in 1967. Forty years later, the drama students from Wilton High were about to have their most important night in the spotlight.
“I’m kind of freaking out a little bit,” said James, pacing in a corner.
In less than two hours he would meet Anderson, the war veteran whose character he was playing. The students and their families had paid to fly Anderson from his home in Virginia to see the show.
Erin applied foundation around her eyes in front of a mirror. She would graduate tomorrow, but she was more anxious about tonight. Erin could not believe she was going to act in front of such an imposing audience — most notably Anderson, and another character in the play, National Guard Lt. Paul Rieckhoff.
Dickinson whisked through the dressing room: “Kids, listen up, put on your strongest voices!”
“I’m nervous!” a student yelled.
“Bonnie, do we have a full house?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “There’s many people out there lined up. It’s totally booked.”
As the lights dimmed, more than 225 people waited for the show to begin.
The 16 teenagers stood onstage, forming two parallel lines. They wore jeans, cargo pants, T-shirts, canvas sneakers, black flats. One wore a camouflage bandana. Together they said: “We choose to hear the voices of those who serve.”
A harmonica played. Erin stepped to the front of the stage as the rest of the cast sat in chairs behind her. She recited a monologue from Army Reserve Sgt. Lisa Haynes: “So I go to Iraq. And on the road we saw a lot of Iraqi kids, poor kids, hungry, pretty kids. Malnourished with big stomachs. We were told not to give them anything. They would come up to your vehicles hungry and we weren’t allowed to give them anything.”
Then it was James’ turn. He rubbed his hands together and brushed his fingers through his hair: “The doctors say I have post-traumatic stress disorder…. My symptoms didn’t show up right away. Then everything just caught up to me and hit me all at once.”
“I have nightmares,” he continued. “Everybody says I didn’t do anything I should be ashamed of. So why can’t I sleep?”
As the play went on, the characters talked of killing insurgents and killing innocent people, missing their families and missing Iraq, loving their country and feeling anger toward it. One spoke of praying for the opportunity to fight. After serving, he talked of witnessing life get better for the Iraqi people. Some of the words came from soldiers who had been killed in the war. The actors recited their names, ages and dates of death.
“Voices in Conflict” ended with a standing ovation. Some audience members wiped tears from their eyes.
Anderson walked up to James and gave him a hug.
In a discussion afterward, Anderson rose from the audience: “The Navy’s core values are honor, courage and commitment,” he told the class, “and I can say beyond any doubt that you all exemplified all of them.”
Anderson asked the students how this experience had changed them.
Erin answered on behalf of her classmates: “We just have come away with the utmost respect for everything that you have done for our country,” she said. “Thank you.”