A play by any other name ...
Pasadena Playhouse temporarily grounds ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo’ for use of epithet
By Sara Cardine 08/09/2012
When Silver Lake artist and lesbian playwright Gina Young sat down with the aim of bringing the topics of budding adolescent sexuality, homophobia and bullying to life on stage, the end result was a playful script whose title paid homage to tween queen/author Judy Blume — “Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo.”
What began as a working title eventually stuck, carrying the production through a sold-out first run in June at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. But when Young sought to bring it to eastside audiences at the Pasadena Playhouse’s Carrie Hamilton Theatre, which frequently rents its stage out to aspiring artists for a fee, she hit a surprising roadblock.
Less than one month before the play’s scheduled Aug. 25 opening night, Young was told by an employee who handles rental agreements that the title wouldn’t fly.
“I got an email saying, ‘I’m so sorry, but anything that has to go in that space has to be approved by the artistic director, and he can’t approve it based on the title,’” Young recalls. “I was shocked.”
What followed was more than a week of email communications between Young and Playhouse staff, including Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, and a letter writing campaign by supporters eager to expound on the topics of civil rights and free speech.
The matter was resolved after a dose of healthy debate on the word “lesbo” and its varied uses and connotations. Young learned last week the play had been given the green light and could be rescheduled for later in the season. Playhouse staff apologized for the kerfuffle.
“The Playhouse would certainly never practice censorship over another artist. We would certainly never ban a production over a certain subject matter,” says Epps, chalking up the confusion to misunderstanding among the many email messages. “We’re both willing and wanting to discuss controversial issues and serve all diverse [groups] within our community.”
But the lost time, the dashed hopes of the actors and writers and the misunderstanding of the artist’s intentions raise questions over how communities can allow individuals and groups to self-identify in public when it means embracing words still considered by the mainstream lexicon to be taboo.
April Masini, relationship expert, author and advice columnist “Ask April,” says it’s common for groups to use derogatory language to identify themselves in order to reduce its harm through ownership. But when people on both sides of the fence are using the same terminology, meanings can get confused.
“The First Amendment is a guide that encourages all of us to speak freely and stay protected,” Masini says. “Problems occur when our words trigger negative feelings. The n-word is often used by African-American artists and the f-word (“fag”) by those who hate homosexuals, as well as those homosexuals who try to capture the word and use it themselves.”
Art imitates life
Drawing inspiration from Blume’s 1972 children’s book “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” Young’s all-woman play follows three young girls as they practice for an upcoming school talent show. Interspersed into the narrative are vignettes touching on themes of bullying, homophobia and the prepubescent encounters that hint at full-fledged sexual identities just beginning to take shape. It is inspired by the actual experiences of Young and co-author Amanda-Faye Jimenez, who is also a lesbian.
“It’s about our elementary school experiences, fictionalized, of course,” Young says. “This play is a comedy. It has dancing — it has Jane Fonda wigs. It’s certainly not a show I expected to have any controversy around.”
Mixed into the frivolity of the song and dance numbers are more serious messages about friendship, the beginning pangs of sexual identity and how society uses homophobic judgments like “that’s gay” to bully youth who deviate from accepted norms.
Young says when the play opened in Santa Monica, several audience members, including heterosexual adults, said they identified with the universal themes. Teachers confided to her afterward that the epithets “gay” and “lesbo” abound in the classroom.
“Kids hear these words in school every single day. If it’s OK for kids to hear words like that in elementary school, then adults can certainly stand hearing it in a play,” she says.
Jimenez says she was surprised to hear the Playhouse was concerned about a play mature youth should be able to handle.
“I grew up here, and I think of Pasadena as a pretty liberal town, not politically maybe, but very open-minded and artsy,” says Jimenez. “When I sent out information about (the show) to my family, I told them it was totally appropriate for kids, as long as they’re OK with the ideas of homosexuality and bullying.”
Behind the curtain
As artistic director for Pasadena Playhouse, Epps reviews artistic license and the choice of material for plays that appear on the main stage. Although “Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo” was planned for the smaller, edgier Carrie Hamilton Theatre, its review still falls within Epps’ purview.
He maintains it was his misinterpretation of the use of the word “lesbo” as an epithet, rather than a descriptor, that touched off the debate in the first place. Epps also says he only questioned use of the word and, at no time, made a decision to dump the play or to comment on its subject matter.
“I never said yay or nay,” he adds. “I had a concern I expressed about the title. Perhaps it was something I needed to be educated on.”
One option Epps explored with Young was allowing the play to show but running ticket sales through a third-party ticket vendor and keeping all mention of the title off of the pasadenaplayhouse.org Web site. That option was not acceptable, says Young, who notes that the play “Ass” by Ellen Simon was shown last year in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre and was advertised on the Playhouse’s Web site without any bureaucratic roadblocks.
“I understand why that compromise was offered, but that’s not fair if that’s not what other plays are being offered,” she adds. “I’m sure they didn’t mean it, but that’s censorship — or censorship adjacent.”
Eventually, according to Epps, it was the many email messages and letters that came to the Playhouse from supporters that convinced him that, in this instance, the word “lesbo” was a term of empowerment and not used to offend audiences.
“That was one of the ways I was able to learn about the use of that term “lesbo” and to discover it is used as a term of empowerment. Once I learned that, I didn’t have any problems with it,” Epps says.
Peace, love and understanding
Last month, in nationwide news, online media outlets were abuzz after Minneapolis-based megastore Target announced it would not carry the latest CD “Channel Orange” by popular gay artist Frank Ocean, whose lyrics were inspired by a homosexual relationship. LGBT supporters called for a boycott of Target. The store’s corporate office had previously made a donation to the organization MN Forward, which backed a conservative Minnesota gubernatorial candidate openly opposed to gay marriage.
When the store clarified that the only reason it had refused to carry “Channel Orange” was because a digital version of the album was being pre-released exclusively on iTunes, Ocean apologized on Twitter, according to the LA Times, saying, “Note to self: Take your own advice. Emotional knee-jerk reacting isn't the move.”
In Young’s case, all parties agree much of the misunderstanding stemmed from the fact that most of the correspondence was done by email, and that some subtler nuances of meaning and intent may have been blurred or misunderstood.
“Everyone at the Playhouse has been so nice. I’m not trying to vilify one person, or them or their leadership,” says Young. “I think there were misunderstandings on both sides. We fell into that curse of the Modern Age — that you can’t tell tone in an email.”
Author Masini says these kinds of misfires will only continue as technology replaces face-to-face encounters and handshakes with mixed messages and emoticons that just don’t suffice.
“Language changes rapidly, and technology aides and abets that change, thanks to small screens that don’t accommodate big words, quick messaging, which encourages fewer keystrokes and more communication between more people, globally,” Masini says. “If you haven’t offended someone, unintentionally, recently, you will — trust me.”
For more information on “Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo,” including production updates, visit ginayoung.com.