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Conservatory's Jack misses the mark with major social undertones 

Generally I don’t review family shows, plays in which children comprise most of the cast, or plays with a limited run — in this case, two nights.

So I did not attend Jack, a children’s musical presented by the Colorado Springs Conservatory, with the intent to review it. But walking out of the Kathryn Mohrman Theatre on Friday night, I felt it was my obligation to write something.

Let me start by clarifying that my issues with Jack did not stem from the performance itself. The kids were fantastic. It was clear how much work and love and talent went into their performances, both individually and as a group. They sang, danced and acted their hearts out, clearly enthusiastic to be onstage.

I also didn’t see any problems with the set or staging. The screen behind the actors that presented computer-animated backgrounds and characters was effective, as was the extensive use of props and set pieces. I thought it came off as well directed, and well managed.

Rather, Jack's troubles were in its script, which seemed to undermine the play’s very message by the end.
click to enlarge COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS CONSERVATORY
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Conservatory

The story follows a young boy named Jack, a bully who shows a lack of remorse for his treatment of his fellow students. After getting suspended from school, he falls into a fitful, almost psychedelic dream sequence, which forces him to face his mistakes by taking him through Jack-related fairytales: Jack Horner, Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk — you get the idea.

It’s a cute concept that worked well enough at first, but it began to devolve in the second act with an homage to the tale of Jack Sprat. A host of young actresses with a negligible amount of stuffing in their clothes began to sing a song about eating— interspersed by fart and burp noises that at least made for easy audience laughter. Their refusal to let Jack eat (and the way their own consumption came off as grotesque) painted a disturbing picture, and not in the 1960s-Disney-nostalgia way that, say, Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island comes off as disturbing.

The fact is, preteens and teens, like the actresses portraying these women, are particularly susceptible to messages of negative body image, and eating disorders are common in people who participate in performing arts. The scene painted fat women as disgusting and cruel, conveying a message that could be damaging to young people who might internalize it. However, I know not everyone is sensitive to issues of body image, so I initially chalked this scene up to an unfortunate consequence of our wider society’s destructive messaging, and moved on.

But soon after the tale of Jack Sprat, the Jack and the Beanstalk scene concerned me for different reasons. Most of the music up to this point represented traditional show tune fare (minus a sultry jazz number sung by the school principal that seemed rather out-of-place on a schoolyard, but I digress). The Jack and the Beanstalk scene includes the show’s first and only hip-hop song, performed by the giant. The giant wakes up, forces the other characters to dance in a generally hip-hop style, and begins rapping about killing Jack.

click to enlarge COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS CONSERVATORY
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Conservatory
At the end of it, he does so, dramatically stepping on the boy. Intentionally or not, this scene demonizes hip-hop, a style of music that relates to, and comes directly out of, black culture. By putting a violent hip-hop song in the mouth of a legitimately evil character, the script perpetuates damaging stereotypes related to race, particularly by characterizing black music/culture as inherently violent. With ongoing racial tension in this country, and with opponents of black movements consistently attempting to paint black activists as violent rioters, it struck me as tone-deaf at best and direct commentary at worst.

At this point, I was disappointed and uncomfortable, but that disappointment only grew as we reached the end of the play. Jack stumbles upon himself as an older man, sitting at a bar drinking. The older Jack offers his young counterpart a shot of whiskey (which, again, seemed out of place in a children’s show) and after a song about choices and consequences, the scene abruptly shifts in tone.

The bar backdrop on the screen behind the actors changes to a flashing disco ball, and the Devil roller skates onstage. The literal Devil, wearing a Richard Simmons wig, a V-neck and bell bottoms, exhibiting queer-coded characteristics that have their roots in anti-gay stereotypes as far back as the ‘60s, all the way down to the way he holds his wrists, and his “oh honey” vernacular. It struck me as the most stereotypical portrayal of a gay man I’ve seen in recent memory — both in theater and in wider media.

When these characteristics are played up for laughs, as they were in Jack, the character’s sexuality (or in this case, suggested sexuality) becomes the joke. It comes off as offensive and demoralizing to members of the gay community who do share those characteristics, and offensive to those who don’t because it warps the popular concept of what gay men are and look like. The Devil also struck me as strangely flirtatious with both versions of Jack (older and younger), which may have just stemmed from his general flamboyance, but nevertheless could perpetuate the concept of the predatory gay man.
click to enlarge COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS CONSERVATORY
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Conservatory
Of course, presenting the Devil as vaguely queer raises the same problems as presenting the giant as vaguely black. Both are villains and the only major "minority" characters in the play.

I’ve found myself considering the irony that a play that claims to convey an anti-bullying message ended up vilifying the kinds of people that most frequently suffer from the effects of bullying — those who are overweight, part of a racial minority, or LGBTQ. Whether intentional or not, the script put the privileged white male child in the role of the bullied, at the hands of the very kinds of people who he would statistically be most likely to target. If the intention was to show those kinds of people “getting back” at him, then such a message fell through the cracks.

And, even if that were the intention, I’m not sure it is the most constructive message to convey. “If a kid is mean to you, be mean to him to teach him a lesson,” while a way many people deal with bullying, isn’t exactly the best advice. Which is why I’m fairly certain that was not the point of these scenes and characters.

I reached out to the Conservatory for comment, and CEO Linda Weise offered the following on behalf of her creative team:
As the narrator said, "We are all Jack". We view ourselves and our experiences through the filters of our own joys, sorrows, struggles and triumphs. We are all on a journey and trying to make sense of it. I certainly felt that as I was writing Jack and feel that now as I read and hear the comments about this work. I heard about how the show empowered individuals and I also heard about the ways it touched inner pain. I am also sensitive that we live in times that feel polarizing to many of us. Still, I am thankful we can have productive dialog that can create positive outcomes.

I founded the Conservatory almost 25 years ago with the mission to challenge, motivate and inspire students to aspire to their highest potential as human beings and as artists through arts immersion studies and community arts advocacy. Combining inspired safe space with supportive, engaged mentors; we see students of all backgrounds and talent unleash an inner strength and sense of self. In doing this, they become citizens who engage and contribute to the world. That mission still carries on today.

In the end, the creation of an inspired and relevant new production is a transformative learning experience for the students, mentors, alumni and community. The process was and still continues to be most meaningful for all involved. The show had a limited, two-night run with the purpose of obtaining feedback and insight for consideration in future updates and releases. There is a market for original community and children's theater pieces such as Jack. It would be amazing to have a piece that was created and shaped by feedback here in our community that could have national and international relevance.

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