Seussical and a Teachable Moment
MPCSD is incredibly fortunate to have the ability to produce high-quality student performances on every campus, every year. The excitement and opportunity these productions offer our students is palpable. They make great community-building events for everyone, and they give our talented music staff a venue for showcasing student talent and their own gifts as producers.
The choice of which musicals to produce is a big decision, and as our society in general, and our thoughtful students in particular, reflect on how systemic racism has impacted our society, there is much more scrutiny into the past actions and comments of artists. This is the case with a musical that will be produced in MPCSD in Spring 2022 at three of our four schools: Seussical, the Musical.
“Dr. Suess” or Theodor Seuss Geisel, has come under increased scrutiny due to racially insensitive political cartooning and racial stereotyping used in his works during the World War II era in which he published. In fact, in March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that oversees the Dr. Suess catalog and the author’s legacy, decided to terminate the publishing of six titles that include ‘racist and insensitive imagery.’”
MPCSD encourages and promotes student agency and engages students in open, age-appropriate dialogue about the impacts of systemic racism. It was no surprise, and a great affirmation, when a group of middle school students and an entire fifth grade class (Maestra Ghahramani’s at Laurel) separately approached school leaders about the appropriateness of choosing Seussical in light of the author’s use of troubling stereotyping.
District leaders, including Superintendent Burmeister, the Educational Services Department, and our Coordinator of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, discussed the important points the students brought forth and considered two options: changing the show selection even though two of the three schools had already fully cast the production and were about ready to begin rehearsal, or empowering students to use this as a ‘teachable moment’ with information and dialogue.
Many authors of Dr. Seuss’s generation had similar problematic backgrounds. When one student suggested that the three schools producing Seussical switch to the show that Encinal had chosen--Wizard of Oz--they discovered that the author of the Oz classic, L. Frank Baum, was also guilty of publishing racist ideology.
Students learned more lessons than just the problematic nature of some beloved authors, including:
- Suessical actually wasn’t written by Dr. Suess. It was written by Lynn Ehrens and Steven Flattery featuring a female lead writer with the overarching theme of UNITY.
- The musical pays homage to Dr. Suess in its style of prose and fantastical characterizations.
- Even people we admire for talents we respect can have points of view that offend, especially when they lived in a different time and context than one in which we live.
- Deciding when something should be “cancelled” and why is difficult and involves thoughtful consideration with challenging and sometimes unknown consequences.
With the advice of the students, staff, district leadership, and the Board, Superintendent Burmeister made the decision to empower the students to make the production of these two shows--Seussical and Wizard of Oz--a teachable moment. Students will lead thoughtful discussions, provide information, make necessary creative adjustments to the productions, and share their thoughts on stage. The Hillview Seussical cast generated a number of great ideas to help educate the audience and community about the play and its problems.
While there is no perfect response, choosing a teachable moment requires all of us to reflect and consider our own feelings about race, equity, and how we move forward from a past full of both injustice AND compassion. Perhaps one of our current students may even become the next great author and lyricist of American musical theater and write from a place of awareness, acceptance, and love.
For further reading on Dr. Seuss and Seussical and "cancel culture," please see these articles:
- The Cat is Out of the Bag, Research on Diversity in Youth Culture by Kate Ishizuka (The Conscious Kid) and Ramón Stephens (University of California)
- Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books, School Library Journal
- How to Talk About Racism in Classic Children’s Books, No Time for Flashcards
- Reading Racism in Dr. Seuss, The Atlantic
- It’s Time to Talk About Dr. Seuss, Teaching Tolerance
- Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them, NPR
- Americans and "Cancel Culture": Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment, Pew Research