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TX School Cancels Theater Trip After Parents Complain About “Cross-Gender” Roles

Actors have played roles that don’t align with their gender “since the creation of theater,” one theater employee said.

The cast of "James and the Giant Peach" at Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas.

A school district in Texas has canceled a field trip to a play because some of the actors perform multiple roles, including characters who don’t align with their gender.

Elementary school students in the Spring Branch Independent School District were set to take a field trip to Houston’s Main Street Theater to watch the play “James and the Giant Peach,” based on the 1961 Roald Dahl book of the same name. But the school announced that the trip would be canceled last week after parents expressed outrage during a school board meeting that actors in the performance play “cross-gender” roles.

“The way that they are normalizing this, especially in front of 5- to 6-year-olds, it just raises concerns for some parents,” parent Jessica Gerland said at the meeting, complaining that the show’s actors dress in “flamboyant makeup and wigs.”

The story includes characters who are insects, which requires actors to dress in colorful costumes. Though Gerland claimed that the costumes are equivalent to those of drag queens, Shannon Emerick, the director of marketing and communications for the theater, said that no such performances were included in the production.

“There’s no drag in the show,” Emerick said. “You are going to see men playing women and women playing men sometimes, absolutely. That has happened since the creation of theater 1,000 years ago.”

Parents who lodged the complaints were backed by conservative social media users, some of whom errantly concluded that drag was part of the show based on the fact that one of the cast members is a local drag performer who goes by the name “Judy and the Giant Peach.” However, that performer does not dress in drag for the show, and posts of the performer dressed in drag are from 2018, the theater noted.

Theater administrators denounced the parental complaints.

“Except for a few characters in the show, they’re all insects, for heaven’s sake. They’re not even people,” said Rebecca Udden, executive artistic director for Main Street Theater.

Udden added:

Every theater in the world has men playing women and women playing men. It’s just part of the tradition. This is certainly blown out of context. We do not do drag in our theater for youth.

The theater has hosted the play in past years without incident. Indeed, the theater has held performances for children for over four decades, putting on productions for an estimated 100,000 kids.

Main Street Theater does not plan to cancel the play as a result of the school district’s decision.

Parental complaints about the play come as right-wing lawmakers across the country have introduced a wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent months, including bills that would criminalize drag performances. As a result of far right fearmongering about LGBTQ people, drag performers have faced bomb threats, firebombing and protests orchestrated by violent extremists; on Saturday, a group of 20 neo-Nazis targeted a drag brunch at a community center in Columbus, Ohio.

Emerick noted that children who have previously seen the play were immersed in the storyline and didn’t care about the genders of the actors. “The kids just believe the story. They’re not interested in any agendas or anything else anyone thinks is going on,” she said.

In an email to Truthout, Emerick explained that the production would not be altered due to the criticisms of some parents at the district, stating:

We have not changed anything about our production. We are continuing to do what we have always done: share stories and create human connection through theater. … Audience feedback is fantastic for the production. The delight and wonder of the production – of the story – carries through time and again. We are grateful to be able to continue connecting with those in our city through theater.

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