Alex Sanchez

If you’re approaching your 20s (or already in them), you might have read about “Tacky the Penguin.” Written by Helen Lester and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, the book was first published in 1988, so by the time most UT undergraduates were perusing picture books — the early 90s, we’ll presume — “Tacky” had made its way to the easy-to-reach library shelves. The title character of the book “was an odd bird,” as the text explicitly states on page five, making it clear from early on that it celebrates nonconformity. While the other penguin characters, named Goodly, Lovely, Neatly, Angel and Perfect, greet each other quietly and march 1-2-3-4, Tacky slaps hellos on the back and marches out of line. With their tuxedo-like feathers, the penguins, standing upright, have just enough humanness to make it clear to children that the story relates to their world, but just enough distance to make it inexplicit enough to be fun.

UT’s College of Fine Arts students recently scheduled to perform for 10 Austin Independent School District schools’ second graders a play titled “And Then Came Tango.” The storyline, according to a Daily Texan news story, is about two male penguins who adopt and hatch an egg. The Daily Texan reported that after the UT students performed the play for Lee Elementary School for the first time on Oct. 16, AISD administrators stopped the tour to discuss the play further.

“UT was supposed to perform the play for Campbell Elementary School on Tuesday, but instead UT students will perform it for AISD elementary school principals, who are still reviewing the play,” the article said. AISD spokesperson Alex Sanchez told the Daily Texan that the issue is whether the play’s content is appropriate for second graders.

“All of our principals and teachers support a message of love and acceptance for all. This has never been a question,” Sanchez said. “The question is one of age-appropriateness based on the subject matter and parent permission.” The storyline of “And Then Came Tango” follows, according to The Daily Texan account, two male penguins at a zoo who try to hatch a rock, and are frustrated until a girl provides the pair with an abandoned egg, which — after bad publicity for the zoo threatens to split up the family — eventually hatches and all ends happily.   

Since we haven’t seen “And Then Came Tango” or read the script, we acknowledge that our initial impulse to side with the penguin play producers stems largely from our impulse to defend a story in which characters, albeit penguins, who triumph in spite of a world that reacts fearfully and towards their differences. We wish AISD’s first reaction did the same. So far, the AISD objections have been vague, although AISD spokesperson Sanchez told the Daily Texan that AISD “is still in discussion with UT about whether to require permission slips, present the play to fifth graders, or proceed with an alternative solution.” While withholding judgment until AISD makes a final decision, until we get to see “And Then Came Tango” or at least until we get a review from an articulate second grader, we still think based on how this likely unreasonable censorship has unfolded to put on high alert all lovers of children’s literature that allows penguins or  other animals to teach hard-to-explain ideas about the adult world. As Tacky might say with a loud slap on the back, “What’s happening?”

Future plays by UT’s College of Fine Arts scheduled for second graders in the Austin Independent School District have been put on hold because of concerns about the “age appropriateness” of a play about two male penguins who adopt and hatch an egg.

 UT was scheduled to perform “And Then Came Tango,” for 10 elementary schools, but after performing the play for Lee Elementary School for the first time Oct. 16, AISD stopped the tour to discuss the play further. UT was supposed to perform the play for Campbell Elementary School on Tuesday, but instead UT students will perform it for AISD elementary school principals, who are still reviewing the play.

The play for Campbell Elementary School is the second of the tour to be canceled. This is not the first year UT has put on plays for AISD students.

AISD spokesperson Alex Sanchez said the issue is whether the play’s content is appropriate for second graders.

“All of our principals and teachers support a message of love and acceptance for all. This has never been a question,” Sanchez said. “The question is one of age appropriateness based on the subject matter and parent permission.”

“And Then Came Tango” is about two male penguins at a zoo who build a nest and become frustrated when their rock does not hatch into a baby penguin. So, a girl who cares for the penguins steals an abandoned egg and gives it to Roy and Silo, the two male penguins. But when the zoo gets bad publicity because of the pair, there is talk of splitting the penguin family. However, the play ends with the egg hatching and Roy and Silo getting to stay together. The play is based on the true story of an identical situation at the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan.

UT’s theatre director Brant Pope said AISD’s response surprised him.

“AISD’s Fine Arts Coordinator and principals had all gotten a plot synopsis,” Pope said. “We understandably assumed they were familiar with the play.”

Pope said AISD has not been specific about what content within the play concerns them, although he has heard general concerns.

“I do not know if anyone has said what the precise nature of the objection is,” Pope said.

A student in the play, who spoke to The Daily Texan on condition of anonymity because the cast and ensemble were told to not speak to the media, said AISD has not communicated its concern clearly.

“It has been super vague,” the student said. “AISD has been very careful about their choice of words and very adamant that the problem is about sex and sexuality.”

The student said the play does not have any themes of sex or sexuality. The student said the play deals with families and raising a child, not with sexual attraction. AISD starts sexual education in fifth grade, but not before.

When UT put on the play for Lee Elementary School for the first time Oct. 16, the student said the second graders there were interactive and responded well to the play. But on Thursday, the cast and ensemble found out their scheduled play at Highland Park Elementary School was canceled, and instead they performed the play for AISD’s Fine Arts Director.

Both the student and Pope said UT sent a plot synopsis and teaching guides to the elementary schools weeks in advance.

“We forwarded them everything. They had a copy of everything,” the student said. “The educational packets asked questions for students and helped teachers facilitate conversation about this show with their students.”

AISD spokesperson Sanchez said AISD is still in discussion with UT about whether to require permission slips, present the play to fifth graders or proceed with an alternative solution. Until a decision is reached, the tour has been put on hold.

Clarification: "And Then Came Tango" is an original play, not an adaptation. An early version of this article did not make that clear.

Printed on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 as: UT theater performance put on hold