A Texas school district canceled a planned student field trip to watch a children’s theater performance of James and the Giant Peach after a parent at a school board meeting complained about the play having actors play both male and female roles, something the parent called “drag.”
The Spring Branch Independent School District (SBISD) in Houston canceled nine schools’ scheduled field trips to see Main Street Theaters’ performance of the play. The theater described the play as being appropriate for students in the first grade and above.
SBISD didn’t offer any explanation to students’ parents about why the trip was canceled, KTRK-TV reported. When asked by the news station, SBISD wrote that the trips were “canceled due to concerns raised about the age-appropriateness of the performance.”
Cheri Thomas, a parent who has a child in SBISD schools, told the news station that a parent at a recent school board meeting complained about actors playing male and female roles in the play, something called “cross-gender casting.”
In Main Street Theater’s version of James and the Giant Peach, about eight actors portray 20 characters. As a result, some of the actors play cross-gender roles.
The theater’s play was criticized by a local anti-LGBTQ+ social media account, @htxkidsfirst. The account posted an image of a local drag performer named Judy and the Giant Peach, dressed in drag. While the drag performer is also an actor in the play, they do not perform as the drag persona pictured posted by @htxkidsfirst. In fact, the images are from 2018 and are unrelated to the current production of the play, Houston Public Media (HPM) reported.
The Instagram account of @htxkidsfirst has also posted images containing blackface and numerous mentions of child molestation.
Main Street Theaters’ marketing director Shannon Emerick said that theater has used cross-gender casting for thousands of years. It allows actors to demonstrate their different talents and allows theaters to reduce the number of actors required to produce a work.
Emerick disagreed that cross-gender casting is the same thing as “drag.”
“Drag is a different art form. There is a whole art form that is drag,” Emerick said. Indeed, drag often involves performers dressing as just one character, holding unscripted humorous conversations with the audience, and performing choreographed lip-syncs to well-known songs.
Emerick added that in children’s theater, “The amazing thing is the kids just believe the story. They’re not interested in any agendas or anything else anyone thinks is going on.”
The children’s play is based on a 1961 novel of the same name written by British children’s author Roald Dahl. In the novel, the titular seven-year-old orphan is forced to live with two abusive aunts. However, he escapes in a giant peach inhabited by friendly insects. Neither the novel nor the play contains any sexual content, although the abusive aunts are crushed to death by the giant peach. The novel was made into an animated and live-action Disney film in 1996.
The theater’s executive artistic director Rebecca Udden told HPM, “We’re really sorry that these people have made such an issue out of this, because it’s a delightful show. We’re performing it to 300 kids three times a day, and they’re loving it.” Udden said that no parents had requested a refund after seeing the play.
In March, Texas state Republicans introduced four bills that would reclassify any businesses that host drag shows as “sexually oriented businesses” and subject them to higher taxes and zoning laws that would force them to close. These bills are so broadly written that they would ban transgender karaoke singers or any performances with cross-gender casting, including Shakespearean plays and numerous musicals.