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How bills restricting drag could impact high school theatre productions

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than a dozen states have proposed similar bills, and that has some high school theater programs concerned, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Some of the most popular musicals performed by high school students have characters who either cross-dress or perform in drag, like Angel in "Rent."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL COVER YOU")

WILSON JERMAINE HEREDIA: (As Angel, singing) Live in my house. I'll be your shelter. Just pay me back with 1,000 kisses.

BLAIR: Other times, out of necessity, boys play girls and vice versa. For example, girls often end up playing boys in "Newsies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KING OF NEW YORK")

NEWSIES ENSEMBLE: (As characters, singing) Look at me. I'm the king of New York.

BLAIR: Nontraditional casting happens routinely. But for teachers, it takes just one parent to make it an issue.

JENNIFER GUFFIN: I had a parent who complained about me a few years ago during "James And The Giant Peach," of all things.

BLAIR: Jennifer Guffin teaches theater at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Ala. She says some of the boys in the show played little old ladies.

GUFFIN: And the parent was very upset that I was going to have her son cross-dressing. And she called the board and complained about me, and I had to have multiple meetings about it to explain, like, this is not a drag show. This is - like, I'm putting you in a costume for 30 seconds so that you can sing in a silly little part.

BLAIR: The bills might not be directed at high school theater, but they're having a chilling effect on teachers, says Jennifer Katona, executive director of the Educational Theatre Association.

JENNIFER KATONA: Teachers are really feeling that their classrooms or their theater spaces are true safe havens for our students, particularly our trans students and our LGBQTIA students, yet much of the atmospheres that they're teaching in and working in are not supporting them in those ways.

BLAIR: In choosing what to perform, teachers often look at what shows students already like, and teens have long gravitated towards material that pushes boundaries, like "Ride The Cyclone," a musical that was written years ago but recently became a viral sensation among teens on TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF JANE DOE")

EMILY ROHM: (As Jane Doe, singing) And I'm asking, why, Lord, if this is how I die, Lord, why be left with no family and no friends?

BLAIR: "Ride The Cyclone" is a dark comedy in which a group of teens die in a roller coaster accident. Each character takes a turn singing about who they are or how they'd like to be remembered. It's so popular among teens that the creators are in the process of writing a version that high schools could perform. But with the drag show bills, that could be a problem, says co-creator Jacob Richmond.

JACOB RICHMOND: There's a whole drag number that we're trying to figure out how to do in a way that you could do in a high school setting.

BLAIR: That drag number is by a young gay man who works at a Taco Bell. He loves Jean Genet and film noir and fantasizes about being a sex worker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOEL'S LAMENT")

KHOLBY WARDELL: (As Noel Gruber, singing) For I sing songs until the break of dawn. I embrace a new man every night. My life's one never-ending carnival.

RICHMOND: It's basically just kind of this is who I am inside as well, like - and the idea that the imagination is just as much a part of us as our daily jobs or what other people define us as.

BLAIR: Richmond says the success of "Ride The Cyclone" on TikTok points out a disconnect in the drag show bills. They might prevent young people from seeing drag performers on stage, but they won't stop teens from finding them online.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.