Let’s Make Theatre Illegal Again
by Gustave J. Weltsek, Ph.D.
OK, this title is a “shock and awe” tactic, for sure, but, as I hope to share, not far from the truth. I write what follows as something of a provocation and call to action.
Here’s the thing: 37 states have bills in motion that will make it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory (CRT). Since January 2021, 37 states, yes, 37, are hampering a person’s right to teach CRT. These bills make it punishable through expulsion, fines, and/or imprisonment, to discuss racism, sexism, or any other topic that has the potential to make a student feel “uncomfortable” (https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/map-where-critical-race-theory-is-under-attack/2021/06).
What this really means is that teachers will not be allowed to think, write, create, perform, or present historical truths through a critical lens. This restriction will be placed not just on history but any inquiry about the complicity and systematization of white supremacist policies in our society. As of the writing of this piece, 14 states have already instituted these legislative measures (https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/anti-crt-legislation-puts-limits-190000586.html?fr=yhssrp_catchall).
As of today, my home state, Indiana, may become the 15th state with its HB1134, titled Education Matters. I am sure the insult to Dr. Cornel West’s seminal critical race text “Race Matters” is not lost (West, 1994).
On the surface, the IN House Bill 1134 sounds like a jolly old, “let’s all get along” treatise. Couched in the language of parental control rather than anti-discrimination, it advocates:
1. That any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation is inherently superior or inferior to another sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation
2. That an individual, by virtue of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
3. That an individual should be discriminated against, or receive adverse treatment, solely or partly because of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.
4. That members of any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin or political affiliation should treat others with disrespect due to the other individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.
Let’s step back for a second and consider what topics show up here. I mean, these are clearly all things we can get behind as theatre folx, right? Did you notice that issues of gender identity and sexuality are omitted completely? And don’t get me started on the fact that there is nothing written here that might threaten the “powers that be” or challenge white supremacy in the system or disrupt the sense of “innocence” of white folx or call out the atrocities of our nation’s becoming and the policies that continue on today? I’m just sayin’.
The bill attacks Critical Race Theory and Social Emotional Learning, positioning them as harmful. How can we get students to make connections to the things in their lives amidst the historical realities without addressing the very real truth that white Europeans did and continue to do some really inhuman things to stay in power? Yes, those topics will make young people uncomfortable as they address the truth. It may also just lead them to work to replace racist policies with those that are just and equitable.
We want an informed citizenry: one that can cry foul when a foul occurs. (That’s why public education exists, right?) But this bill prevents us from fully exploring critical thinking with young people. Say goodbye to Shakespeare. Not even Oklahoma will be safe. (Jud Fry: need I say more?) And forget about anything that emerges within Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) work.
The IN House Bill 1134 is about the continued assault on policy changes that in any way forces white folx to look honestly at ourselves/themselves, our/their heritage and take action to alter the systematic racist policies that are the history and present of the United States. What’s more, we cannot ignore Indiana’s own disgusting record on race and discrimination: burning of neighborhoods, economic segregation, KKK influence, and myriad others.
House Bill 1134 is just another in the growing long line of bigoted and racist attempts at silencing our children’s right to know the very difficult truths about this nation and the world. It attempts to lie to our children, hiding behind the self-righteous claim that there is a wish to prevent, “That any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or political affiliation.” Yet what the policymakers and legislative stakeholders (many of whom are white) fail to acknowledge is how the denial of the VERY REAL history of the murder, rape, enslavement, and trauma of BIPOC peoples causes feelings of being erased, ignored, beaten down, and forgotten. These feelings also extend to immigrants, women, and LGBTQ communities. I ask, WHAT ABOUT OUR CHILDREN’S RIGHT TO KNOW THE TRUTH?
So, what does this have to do with making theatre illegal?
Well, here’s the thing. For me, I deal with a multiplicity of identities in my theatre and drama classes. We dive deep, we risk, we embody, we confront, we dissect what it means for us to be alive both individually and collectively. Yes, things get uncomfortable, but a good kind of uncomfortable, a discomfort that allows students to challenge what is known and knowable to reach beyond the present moment. Isn’t that what the arts are for?
Let me lay a little bit more of this bill on you and share how it directly affects us educators and give you a sense of why I am so frustrated. House Bill 1134 explains that legal action can be taken if we are found guilty of “(1) the dissemination of material harmful to minors; or (2) a performance harmful to minors” (http://iga.in.gov/legislative/2022/bills/house/1040#digest-heading).
Censorship is nothing new for many of us. We teach in schools where the principal gets the final say on what we produce. I’ve been told several times that the subject matter of a play is too controversial. But I have never been threatened with imprisonment. Now, you may well ask what is this almighty litmus that ultimately judges good and evil? Whose notion of “harmful” are we talking about? Wait for it…
The bill reads:
(14) The ideals and values expressed or enumerated in the Constitution of the United States and the economic and political institutions of the United States are better suited to contribute toward human advancement, prosperity, scientific inquiry, and well-being compared to forms of government that conflict with and are incompatible with the principles of western political thought upon which the United States was founded.
Wait, what? Did I miss something or is the US not in one of its most difficult moments precisely due to the failure of the Constitution to protect all the people? To say nothing of the fact that the Constitution was written by white, capitalistic, Christian men in efforts to maintain their own values system, ethics, and (most of all) power. The writers of Bill HB1134 hope to create a law that forces educators to uphold the white supremacist, capitalistic, Christian, patriarchal phenomenology that is the United States Constitution.
With this type of fascist silencing, how can we theatre folx authentically engage with young people in the socio-cultural exploration that is the heart of our art form?
Theoretically, I could go to jail if I read Chekhov in class! Show me one play, one play that doesn’t make someone uncomfortable. Or deal with uncomfortable truths. Or question the status quo, the abuse of power, the blindness of the majority, the negation and marginalization of the individual. Name it. You can’t, right?
So, what’s going on in your state?
Gustave J. Weltsek, Ph.D. (he, i, they) is a third-generation immigrant writing from the unceded lands of the myaamiaki, Lënape, Bodwéwadmik, and saawanwa. In his role as Assistant Professor of Arts Education at Indiana University, School of Education, he teaches graduate courses in imaginative and creative pedagogies and performative inquiry and undergraduate courses in drama and theater in/as education. His research examines how a critical performative pedagogy (Weltsek et al. 2007, 2014; Pineau 2002) may function as a space for social change and explorations of equity. Publications appear in Youth Theatre Journal, Arts Education Policy Review, Language Arts, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. He is the co-chair of AATE Scholarship and Research, award adjudicator for the AERA Arts & Inquiry in the Visual and Performing Arts SIG, the 2013 recipient of the AATE research award, and has served as an AATE representative writing the U.S. standards for Theatre/Drama Education.
Now it’s your turn! What do you think? Comment, react, share.
If you would like to contribute a story to the ongoing conversations on CRT and/or stage legislation that affects our work in Theatre & Education, please reach out to email@example.com. We hope that this is just the beginning of dialogue together on the ElevAATE platform. Thank you.
“CRT District Resolutions — Documentation.” Various, 2021. PDF file.
Cuenca, Alex, Keith Barton, and Kathryn Engebretson. “Here’s what’s at risk if Indiana bills on teaching race-related topics become law.” IndyStar,13 January 2022.
Kingkade, Tyler. “Critical race theory battles are driving frustrated, exhausted educators out of their jobs.” NBC News, 21 July 2021.
Krugman, Paul. “Attack of the Right-Wing Thought Police.” The New York Times, 24 January 2022.
Macaluso, Michael. “Critical Race Theory is just a red herring. Here is the real issue.” IndyStar, 19 January 2022.
Rufo, Christopher F. “The Ghost of Jim Crow.” ChristopherRufo.com, 19 January 2022.
Sargent, Greg. “Behind the latest GOP restrictions on race teaching: A hidden, toxic goal.” Washington Post, 24 January 2022.
“They’re teaching children to hate America’: the culture war dividing US schools.” The Guardian, 16 February 2022.