This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.
If Lewis Carroll were alive today, “curious” might be the word he would use to describe the People’s Light Theater performance of his world-renowned novel, Alice in Wonderland.
The theater, located in Chester County is currently running a holiday, pantomime rendition of the classic. The website says the show is appropriate for ages five to 105 and includes a drag queen performer in the cast. Eric Jaffe, according to the theater’s casting page, “is a genderfull [sic] glamour monster and the recipient of the 2018 Philly Drag Awards, Best Host, Best Alternative Drag Queen, And Drag Queen of the Year as well as 2020’s Performer of the Year.”
Just as curious is the fact that multiple school districts in Chester County are sponsoring field trips for students to attend the performance, including West Chester Area, Tredyffrin/Easttown, and Downingtown. Students as young as second grade and up to sixth grade attended the performance.
The theater website makes a point to highlight Eric Jaffe’s role on the main page. “This year, People’s Light is thrilled to welcome award-winning drag performer Eric Jaffe as the audience’s new guide through the magical mayhem in the role of Dinah/Cheshire Cat.” None of the other performers are mentioned in the overview.
Controversy erupted after some children attended the show with their school and informed parents that they were required to wear masks at the performance. As parents started looking further into the show, they realized that a drag queen was appearing as one of the main characters and that the theater was promoting this performer above the rest.
A public Facebook group posted about the issues with parents weighing in on both sides.
While the majority of comments were very concerned about the field trip, Meghan Reikob disagreed about the content of the show.
“WCASD did list the show name on permissions slips. I do agree that there should have been advance notice provided by the school about People’s Light mask policy. But I genuinely don’t understand the rest of your argument,” Reikob said. “Has no one complaining ever heard of a panto before? Nothing about this is new or woke.” ”
Her comments, however, did not address others’ concerns of a drag queen performing for children or the fact that the theater advertised the show as such.
No one is questioning or concerned about pantomimes as a theatrical modality or the fact that someone of one gender can play a different role in a performance. Theater has a long tradition of men playing women’s roles, dating back to the Greeks and Romans. In more recent history, the theater term “transvesti” is used to describe the portrayal of a character of the opposite sex. Therefore, the idea that someone of a different gender can play the role in a theatrical performance is not surprising or uncommon, nor is it troubling to parents.
What concerns many parents is the lack of transparency and communication with the school districts.
Downingtown Area School District’s permission slip (see below) for the field trip did not even include the name of the performance. While some districts did include the name of the show, they did not state that their children would see a drag queen performer. Nor did they state that every child would require a mask. This is despite the fact that the districts are not currently requiring masks for children at school, and some children have mask exemptions that may or may not have been accommodated. Parents were not given enough information to make informed decisions about whether their child should attend.
One of the Facebook commenters suggested that parents should have researched the show before completing the permission slip. And while that is a reasonable solution, parents should be able to rely on our publicly funded schools and administrators to make good decisions and to provide parents with enough information to also make decisions in the best interest of their child.
Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll, a deeply conservative and spiritual man and a deacon in the Church of England. I am fairly certain that Carroll did not intend his book to be used as a social commentary on gender fluidity, nor do most parents. Most parents are familiar with the whimsical nature of the book and likely thought it would be an entertaining and educational field trip for their child.
Several parents of children who attended the show shared anonymously, for fear of retaliation from their district, that they would not have allowed their child to attend if they knew that they were required to wear a mask. Others stated concerns over the performance and promotion of the drag queen performer. Parents also questioned whether there was any discussion following the performance at school.
Both the West Chester Area and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts were asked to comment on the field trip. Molly Schwemler, manager of district communications for West Chester Area School District, responded with the following:
“Sixth grade students from the West Chester Area School District did attend the performance of Alice in Wonderland: A Musical Panto at People’s Light and Theater. As part of People’s Light and Theater’s current health and safety guidelines, masks are required for all those attending indoor performances regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff attending the performance were provided masks and did follow this policy.
“In advance of the performance, families were informed that students had the opportunity to attend a contemporary, pantomime version of Alice in Wonderland and given permission slips to return. The actors’ biographies and acting credentials were not included with this information but were accessible on the People’s Light and Theater website.”
Tredyffrin/Easttown School District did not respond to the request for comment.