In Utah, many contradictions confound in their complexities. Mormonism champions its cosmopolitan outreach through its mission service, where members proselytize about the virtues of perfection, prosperity and duty of faith. Meanwhile, while immigrants and refugees are welcomed in the state, many also feel isolated and vulnerable, seeing clearly how lip service and posturing barely mask the borderline racism that runs through Utah’s history. Utah’s economy is touted for its potential, offering signs of an economic boom. Yet, in agriculture, an industry intertwined with the flourishing of Mormon pioneers, latter generations of farmers became disenchanted with the drudgery of daily farm tasks. Some of those disenchanted individuals leave behind the bleak prospects they see in their lives, occasionally finding the individual they believe will give them just enough luck and know-how to get ahead even if for a little while.
Likewise, the words of appreciation for education sometimes ring hollow in the most conspicuously unflattering ways. Teachers in Utah struggle to empower their own positions, a problem exacerbated by the state’s ranking near the bottom in terms of school funding. Even the bright spots in education cannot escape being tarnished. The quality of art education in the state’s schools is quite good. The Beverly Taylor Sorenson Art Learning Program, for example, has supported the placement of art educators in Utah’s elementary schools. The Utah All-State High School Art Show, which is coordinated by the Springville Museum of Art in conjunction with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, is among the nation’s largest and longest-running student art shows of its kind. However, stories also have gone viral nationally and internationally about art censorship in Utah, both in classrooms and libraries, thereby eclipsing opportunities to make more visible stories about creative entrepreneurship that could smooth the rougher edges of the contradictions mentioned above.
None of these stories occur in a vacuum, as playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett contends. In his newest play, Art & Class, the second premiere in Plan-B Theatre’s audio-only 30th anniversary season and directed by Jerry Rapier, Bennett builds an elegant theatrical edifice encompassing these complexities. This is channeled through the story of Lucía, a Costa Rican immigrant and artist, who faces losing her job as a sixth-grade art teacher, as she is accused of showing pornography to her students. The images in question came from classic art books in the school’s library collection.
The production, which requires digital tickets, will launch April 15 at 8 p.m. and will be available through April 25.
The incident in Art & Class is based on a news story from four years ago, when Mateo Rueda, an art teacher in Cache County’s Lincoln Elementary School, was accused similarly when he showed his students reproductions of classic art works, some of which portrayed nude figures, that were pulled from The Art Box postcard collection in the school’s library. Rueda, a Colombian native who had completed his master’s degree at nearby Utah State University, lost his job. However, school administrators alleged that the reasons for Rueda’s removal were based more on parental complaints that he had spoken inappropriately to the children in explaining that there was nothing wrong with viewing art portraying the nude human figure than on the act of showing the postcards in the first place. In fact, police, acting on a complaint by a parent, searched the school for evidence of pornography and in the midst of its investigation, caught the principal in the process of destroying the postcards in question, which occurred at the school board’s request. The story eventually went viral around the world, reinforcing public perceptions about Utah’s obsession with pornography as the state defines it along with it unreasonable overreactions, which end up censoring even benign, artistic portrayals of bodies and nudity. Rueda now lives in Portland, Oregon, working as an artist and offering private art lessons.
The main character in Bennett’s play shares several key traits with her real-life counterpart. Lucía has an advanced degree. She is developing her own artistic portfolio. And, the play makes apparent her commitment as a teacher wanting to inspire her students to appreciate and engage with art. She spends quite a bit from her pockets to enrich the classroom experience, most of which is not reimbursed — an experience also familiar to many teachers not just in Utah but elsewhere. However, the casting of a different gender for the teacher also opens up the narrative’s strategic creative purpose to explore why such incidents in Utah are not limited to the local culture’s peculiarities and obsessions with cultural gatekeeping or outright censorship. Also, the principal in the original news story is a woman while the parallel character in the play is male (Leland).
Outsiders are welcomed in Utah but the extent and arenas to which they are welcomed narrow considerably. Immigrants will hear messages about being appreciated that sound good on the surface but eventually are unmasked for their insincerity. Even when outsiders express ideas, opinions or suggestions that sound good to the credentialed members of Utah’s predominant culture, they hear sentiments that amount to saying, “if only you were one of us.” Flo Bravo, the actor who plays Lucía and has lived in the U.S. for two decades, encapsulates the circumstances perfectly in a Plan-B blog post:
In my experience, being an immigrant can feel like being an underdog (in many ways, it is). For many, that chip on one’s shoulder feeds a desire to achieve. I see that in Lucía. She earned a graduate degree, traveled, and is committed to her students. But none of it is enough to earn the respect of her employers or her community and she struggles to carve out space for herself in her own life. Unfortunately, nothing she does, no advanced degree or acrobatic code-switching or smiling through gritted teeth, makes a difference in the eyes of those who see her as “other.” Even her closest friend encourages her to compromise her values in the name of not ruffling any feathers.
Just as integral to Lucía‘s story is her relationship to her husband, Riley, a dairy farmer who also is hobbled economically while he recovers from an injury. Lucía, who has been in the U.S. for six years, is just entering her thirties while Riley already is in his late thirties. On the surface, Riley seems to adore his wife but he also struggles with his own perceived shortcomings. Unlike Lucía, he did not attend college. He is more motivated about hunting than in completing an application for a career program that Lucía believes would be perfect for him. He also believes Lucía could produce art bound to generate quick sales in their community. Meanwhile, he shows little interest in her current project, a series highlighting refugees. These tensions simmer throughout the play, eventually joining and heightening others arising directly from the central part of the drama in Art & Class.
As for the other characters in the play’s central drama, Bennett fleshes out the dimensions of their basic traits which many Utahns will recognize. Mindy Van Tassel has a daughter, Payslee, in Lucía‘s class. About the same age as Riley, Mindy fits in with Cache County’s main demographic: white, Mormon, conservative. She also is a part-time ballroom instructor. However, Mindy does not seem to be fully aware of what is happening to her daughter Payslee at school, including some issues that Lucía has noticed and has sparked her own concerns. And, the intensity with which Mindy confronts Lucía could be explained by other events which have affected the mother.
Meanwhile, Leland Hess, the principal, seems to appreciate Lucía‘s contributions in the classroom, even trying to impress her with his own attempts to be seen as enlightened and cosmopolitan. Leland also cuts a figure recognizable in many Utah communities — a liberal Mormon who strives to be a woke intellectual but also does not have the courage to go beyond the “don’t rock the boat” mentality when some problems and controversies arise, for fear that they might be ostracized themselves.
The play’s premiere is the culmination of a two-year workshopping process — 13 drafts —- that not only involved Plan-B Theatre but also the local Pioneer Theatre Company as well as The Constructivists in Milwaukee and the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha. Bennett, whose plays comprise some of Plan-B’s most success productions for artistic impact, exhaustively probes how to confer credibility not only to the characters but also their relationships — in particular, the ways in which Mindy and Lucía communicate. What stands out in Art & Class is that Bennett has the opportunity to expand these dynamics beyond what normally is possible in Plan-B’s Radio Hour Series episodes, which have strict time limits and include the station breaks as required during live broadcasts on KUER-FM’s RadioWest program.
Bennett, who also spoke briefly to Rueda as he developed his script, recalls hearing the news of the incident on the radio during a car trip. “I started to think about a play as I talked it out with my wife [Wendy Blankenship, who is a teacher and lived in Wellsville, which is located in the county],” he says. “This happened at the same time the #MeToo movement became more visible. And, Wendy and I talked about differences in treatment for male and female teachers involved in relatively innocuous infractions and it was a pretty disturbing gap.”
In an interview on The Art of Education podcast, Rueda spoke about how he saw the incident as more than an issue of censorship and how he sought to process mentally and emotionally the controversy that had erupted. At one point, Rueda recalls, “Luckily one of the parents contacted me through Facebook and she expressed that her daughter was in the classroom, that she heard my explanation, she understood it very well and that for her, she finds that she is not capable of giving her an explanation on why her art teacher is being removed. To me, that actually gave me some sense of hope about maybe being able to establish a better case about what happened.”
Rueda adds, “I wrote to her and I wrote to her a letter, a little long, but it also helped me to clarify the set of events, how things happened, how I felt and everything in a sense. It was helpful for me and I’m glad that she was someone like minded and definitely decided to do something about it, which I admire and I’m sure it’s a good lesson for her daughter to learn about tenacity and conviction about what one holds to be true in a rational manner for that matter, because all of this has been rather irrational, for lack of a more, how do you say, word.”
That underlying sene of irrationality also sets up the story in Art & Class. Bennett looked forward to giving the issue of censorship a more multifaceted perspective. In 2010, for Plan-B’s And The Banned Slammed On, in which Utah playwrights were given 24 hours to write a short play and have it produced for a live premiere, he wrote Staged, a hilarious theatrical statement highlighting the absurdity of changing a word in the Broadway musical Avenue Q so as not to offend prudish senses.
Returning to the story about Rueda, “I was so angry about the news story but I also did not want it to wind up being a play that preaches,” Bennett explains. He adds that this led him to incorporating the tensions in Lucía‘s marriage as well as other relationship dynamics where seemingly well-intentioned socially conditioned responses from those with whom she interacts actually are racist, condescending and oppressive. Thus, some of the most significant exchanges between the characters occur outside of the school, echoing just how embedded the roots of unintentional racism are in many communities. For example, a scene occurring in a Christmas tree lot bringing in a fifth character whose appearance in the play lasts less than two minutes punctuates a key thematic pulse that is present throughout the play.
In addition to Bravo, the cast includes Roger Dunbar, Bijan Hosseini and Stephanie Howell. Cheryl Ann Cluff handles sound design. David Evanoff is handling sound engineering to produce the master that listeners will hear. The production follows the same protocol as last month’s premiere of Julie Jensen’s P.G. Anon. That is, the actors and production crew never congregated in physical spaces but stayed separately while rehearsing and performing via Zoom in their homes. To augment the audio quality of Zoom, Plan-B invested in equipment provided to each actor.
The 10-day run of P.G. Anon produced encouraging results, indicating a total audience more than double Plan-B’s usual in-person attendance for a comparable run as live theater, Rapier notes. In addition to Utah, listeners came from Alabama, Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
Just as encouraging are the numbers for the audio stream and coloring sheets for Plan-B’s eighth annual but first virtual Free Elementary School Tour (FEST) production, Rachel Bublitz’s Presenting: Super Cat and Reptile Robot, which Rapier says, has been enjoyed by elementary students in 283 classrooms at 172 schools in the state. The current FEST production is available through June 7.
Art & Class will be available for streaming as a podcast on the Plan-B website as well as on its free app. Listeners will be able to access the production within the specified run dates. Tickets for individual productions are available on a pay-what-you-can basis: As a guide, the regular ticket price would be $22 and there are no additional fees. Plan-B will send donation letters to individuals who pay an amount larger than $22 per ticket. For more information, see the Plan-B website.