Arizona school halts production of Tom Sawyer musical

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

Concerned about the promotion of racial and gender stereotypes, school officials in Mesa, Ariz., recently halted production of a play about Tom Sawyer at a junior high school.

Students at Carson Junior High School planned to create a musical version of the classic Mark Twain story, Tom Sawyer. But Mesa Unified School District officials say the novel contains too many racist and sexist references, as well as passages offensive to law enforcement officials and churchgoers.

“The district has a policy related to sensitive material being taught,” said Judi Willis, spokeswoman for the school district. “The play and its format did not provide the appropriate instruction needed to deal with these issues.”

Students at Carson planned the performance for mid-October. On Aug. 26, the school's orchestra teacher finished casting the play, but school officials halted production the next day.

Author Nat Hentoff, who has written extensively about schools nationwide removing Twain's books from their shelves, says that banning the play entirely isn't the proper response to dealing with the content of Tom Sawyer.

“You educate people,” Hentoff said. “You put up a course on this subject asking: Who was this guy? Why did he write this way? Was he really stereotyping blacks and women or was he characterizing the people of Hannibal, Mo., of his time?

“The effect of this thing is anti-education,” Hentoff said. “What are the kids learning from this? That the authorities, when people are offended, can repress this work?”

Willis says the district believes that Twain's work should be offered in an appropriate educational setting, not as an after-school play.

“When we teach Twain's literature in English classes, we have trained English teachers who can include other authors of same the period, provide historical context and remind students of the themes,” she said.

She noted that the orchestra teacher had no formal training in presenting Twain's work. She said children seeing the play cold might laugh at a situation deemed inappropriate under school policy and not understand that they could face disciplinary action if they acted that way in school.

“In a classroom setting with a teacher, you can discuss all of the issues,” she said.

Although Mesa school officials have no plans to reconsider their ban on the play, Willis says the district school board is forming a committee to review system policy concerning harassment and sensitivity issues.

Willis says she doesn't know how the orchestra teacher initially obtained permission to perform the play because Carson recently changed principals.

“We don't know what process was used, but from school to school, you will find some differences,” she said. “That's why we are examining our procedures, so we can educate our employees in the future.”