A democracy lesson — in drag

TAPIT/new works tackles school censorship

By Chelsey Dequaine in Isthmus, April 28, 2016

Baron von Steuben, the Revolutionary War hero credited with transforming the Continental Army into a force capable of beating the British, was never asked and didn’t tell: By many accounts, von Steuben was a gay man.

In Ben Franklin & Baron von Steuben vs. the Paine County School Board, conservative school board members get wind of a history teacher’s lessons on von Steuben. Directed by Stephen F. Murray and written by Danielle Dresden, the play opens May 6, 2016, and runs through May 21 at TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater, 1957 Winnebago St.

The company’s two producing artistic directors, Dresden and Donna Peckett, play the ghosts of Franklin and von Steuben, who risk intervening in contemporary affairs to set the record straight. “They get fed up with the references to what people think their intentions are,” says Dresden.

The inspiration for the story began six years ago when Dresden picked up a gay and lesbian newspaper at a Madison coffee shop and came across an article asserting that Ben Franklin was the first gay ally. “I wanted to do something about it,” Dresden says. “At that time, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was still the policy for the military. Ironic since the person [von Steuben] who wrote their first training manual was gay.”

Despite the humorous premise, Dresden and Peckett hope the play will spark healthy dialogue. “It suggests that for democracy to work we have to be able to talk to each other, even if we don’t agree,” Dresden says.

Plot points are tied to contemporary events, local and national, past and present. For example, in 2013 a conservative majority elected to the school board in Jefferson County, Colo., attempted to censor the AP U.S. History curriculum to “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”

In her research for the play, which is her 36th, Dresden interviewed a representative from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to learn the ins and outs of textbook censorship. “School boards can’t actually change the content of a textbook, but they can change the very textbook the district uses,” she says.

In addition to the public performances, Dresden and Peckett have designed a portable version of the play for Madison-area high schools and middle schools. In recent weeks, they have traveled to four area schools to engage with students on issues such as censorship and curriculum.

Peckett says TAPIT, now in its 31st year, does not shy away from controversy. “It’s important to set the record straight: Are we a democracy?” asks Peckett. “I don’t know that we are. This is a critical time in American history.”

Comments are closed.