FREMONT -- School trustees are embroiled in another controversy over censorship and tolerance after they rejected the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America Part One" for the 12th-grade Advanced Placement supplemental reading list.
Five other books were approved on a 3-2 vote late Wednesday night, after board President Bryan Gebhardt and trustee Ivy Wu refused to support any materials until the selection process is improved.
In a separate vote, "Angels in America" was rejected 4-1. Trustee Lara York voted in favor of the play, about the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York, but trustees Larry Sweeney and Lily Mei said it is unsuitable for high school students. The board rejected Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina" in 2009 and again last year for the same reason.
Sweeney denied that the play is being banned or censored, saying the question is whether it should be required reading.
"If you, as a parent, want to take your child to see the play or you want to see the play or anything, I have absolutely no problem with that at all," he said. "But I think when we're requiring reading and there's a group of people who feel that they are being targeted -- we've heard people talk tonight about tolerance and acceptance -- and there's a group of people who feel very much that their belief system is not being tolerated, and in fact is being made fun of."
Mei also said she doesn't want students to feel uncomfortable with a required textbook.
York said that while she is concerned that people in the community feel attacked by the play, the AP class is there for students to challenge themselves.
"I don't see a controversy of having students who may have different beliefs than what's being brought up in this book, or any other book that they might be reading in our classes, and for them to be led in a rich dialogue by our highly qualified teachers to flesh out what their position is," she said.
It's not the first time Fremont trustees have found themselves accused of censorship.
In 2009, Mei, Sweeney and Wu said the book "Bastard Out of Carolina," which tells the story of a girl beaten and raped by her stepfather and includes scenes of masturbation, was inappropriate for high school students. The following year, York also opposed it, saying the book should not have been brought back before the board so quickly.
Before a book is recommended to the school board, it must be approved by the English Curriculum Committee, a group consisting of the district's English department heads, and then by the Secondary Schools' Textbook Adoption Committee, made up of teachers, administrators, parents and a school board member.
Superintendent Jim Morris said district officials are going to look at what other schools are doing and bring back some revisions to the board.
"We understand that we have a process in place that is a less than perfect process, and I think this example brings to light some of the improvements that we need to make," he said. "The current process is not only cumbersome, but I'm not sure that it really gives us a satisfactory result."
"Angels in America" is a seven-hour play in two parts by Tony Kushner. It revolves around two New York couples and their friends and family who deal with disease and death during the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s.
The first part, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," received its world premiere in May 1991 in a production by the Eureka Theatre Co. in San Francisco. The play debuted on Broadway in 1993 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year.
HBO Films created a miniseries version of the play in 2003, adapted by Kushner, directed by Mike Nichols and with a cast including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. It won five Golden Globe Awards and 11 Emmy Awards.
The book has been in use by the College Board since 2009 and appears on the AP test as a supplemental reading option.
Four years ago, Encinal High School in Alameda became the second high school in the state to stage a production of "Angels in America." Gene Kahane, the English teacher who directed the play, said they performed a 3 1/2-hour version, having edited out some of the language and nude scenes, and it went off without a hitch.
"We didn't have a single complaint," he said. "People stayed to the end; there was a standing ovation every night; people were in tears every night. They recognized that there was beauty in the story and there was truth."
Kahane, who has taught for 28 years, including 15 at Encinal, said he wouldn't hesitate to study the play in class.
"You don't win the Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize, as this has done, without having some significance," he said.
"Seniors in high school, and especially AP seniors -- they not only need this kind of stuff to look at, but they want it, too. They don't want anything watered down."
Anthony Newfield, an actor who has performed on stage, film and television, urged the board to adopt the play as part of the curriculum.
"I saw 'Angels in America' in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre in its first-ever production," he said. "It was astonishing. I had not seen anything like it before or since. It deals with issues in America, how we live as Americans, who we are as Americans.
It deals with the diversity of America, with Mormons, Jews, Christians, blacks, whites, straights, and yes, even gays."
Laura Saponara, communications director of the ACLU of Northern California and a graduate of Fremont schools, also encouraged the board to approve the play.
"Intellectual freedom means access to information and ideas, and the right of students as well as adults to entertain a full range of diverse ideas," she said. "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended precisely for this kind of conversation. It was intended to protect against the tendency to guard against ideas and characters that are perceived to be so dangerous that they must be somehow barred or made off-limits to learners," she said.
Others, though, were offended by the play and said it is inappropriate for high-schoolers, even those in an honors class.
The Rev. Bruce Green of Centerville Presbyterian Church, said a fellow member of the Afghan Coalition board complained about the play, and Green he downloaded a sample on Kindle to see what the fuss was about.
"Just from the sample, I couldn't believe that such a profane and obscene book was being considered as a high school textbook," he said. "The little bit I read of this book, it was kind of like I was being offered a filthy cup covered with the F-word and even introducing me to new Yiddish profanities. I was looking for the hook, something that would shine through the toilet talk and engage me to pay the $8 and download the whole book. Instead, the filthy cup was filled with sour milk. It looked bad and smelled worse to me."
Carol Zilli, a teacher for more than 30 years, said the play is "sordid curriculum" that stereotypes religious and political groups.
"Divisive is the primary word that comes to my mind, divisive in a school district that has worked hard for unity," she said. "I find that going backwards.
"Tolerance (in the play) is limited to sexual activity. It is not evidenced in this book that there's tolerance for diversity of ideas and thought, and you can't have a diverse culture without acceptance of diversity of thought and religious beliefs."
Ann Crosbie, parent of two children who will be attending Washington High, said she wrestled with the issue but ultimately decided to support adopting the play.
"Some parents feel that their 17-year-old child shouldn't be exposed to inappropriate language, but this isn't the first book approved for AP English with dirty words," she said. "Is this book just smut? Historically, they haven't awarded Pulitzer Prizes to smut."
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