Dear Governor Ducey,
I complain a lot a lot a lot about the business of charters schools. I’m writing a whole book about school choice and aspens and apples and other kinds of choice where individual desire trumps the collective need, to the detriment of the collective. And Arizona is particularly egregious in its management of charter schools and the way charter school directors pull profits from public school coffers. That same kind of pull tears apart the fabric of community. Public schools are where football games and dances and community meetings take place. Public schools include. Charter schools exclude. I’ve never been to a play or dance concert at a charter school. I have spent more time in the Coconino and Sinagua auditoriums than I have at the grocery store, and I go to the grocery store three times a week.
But there are forces moving against the charter school’s pulling apart of the fabric of community. And although Flagstaff is evidently America’s first STEM city, it is not only through science that community is stitched together. It’s art. Dance performances and piano recitals, TheatriKids and Puente’s cultural performance. It doesn’t matter where the kids go to school. In the evening, they come together, usually in the Coconino Auditorium.
The last two weekends, a new group called FAME: Flagstaff Arts Music and Entertainment put on the musical The Producers at Coconino High School. The Producers is a famous play, film and musical that I’ve never seen. I knew Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane starred in the latest film version. I knew, possibly, that Mel Brooks directed it. But I had no idea what the play was really about. From the playbill: “FAME is a new theater company that picks edgy and provocative plays to encourage Flagstaff Teens to explore contemporary issues through art. The cast helps choose the shows, and the production team uses the script to talk about difficult topics. The Producers is all about stereotypes. Every character is a stereotype. The Jewish producers, Max and Leo, try to make money by creating a Broadway flop, ripping off old ladies and cheating the IRS plying into our worst stereotypes about Jews and money.” The play Max and Leo decide to produce is “Springtime for Hitler,” which is about as inappropriate as you can get. Stereotypes about older women, gay men and voluptuous women abound. No one is spared. As the playbill reads, “The catchy tune and funny dance steps in “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” ridicule those who blindly follow unethical leaders.” (cough cough).
The Producers is a musical. People sing. Not just people. Teenage people. Teenagers who belt out songs. I have been to choir performances. There is not so much belting. There’s harmony and songs that echo hymns or classical music. There has never, ever been, in my choir experience, a song making fun of Hitler. This play has raunchy bits where Max and “Hold Me Touch Me” (the older woman’s only moniker) pretend to hook up on stage. And then Leo Bloom (oh, Joyce’s Ulysses jokes! How lucky I am to get the allusion!) and the voluptuous Ullu have a heavy make-out session behind the couch. These songs aren’t timidly sung. The actors’ facial expressions aren’t contorted. These are real actors and real singers who live in Flagstaff, Arizona. They come from Flagstaff high schools—from charter and private and public.
Flagstaff isn’t known for its edgy art. We’re a sensitive community. We are STEM and dark skies and freaking out about our newly limited plastic recycling options, but this play comes in like a tempest. It does the thing that schools should do. It sets the bar high. It shows how everyone can sing and dance, but you better practice hours every day. It says teenagers are committed, intelligent beings who show how brazen comedy can reveal deep truths.
This play was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Is that possible, or am I being hyperbolic? I laughed so hard I almost cried. I took Zoe, who is 13 and who, except for the one year at a charter, is a product of public schools. She laughed as hard as I did. She is heading to State for her National History Day project about the Holocaust. She wouldn’t have gotten the jokes without serious study. We wouldn’t have had the jokes without the brave team at FAME who said to themselves, “Flagstaff is full of talent and has a good sense of humor. Let’s do this.”