Staten Island’s well of censorship – Part 2

by on April 29, 2009  •  In Culture

The NY Times today runs an update to the scandal, Staten Island style, over Holly Hughes' 25-year-old play:

[A]t the College of Staten Island, a mildly ribald farce entitled “The Well of Horniness” will be staged this week by a talented senior named Robert Mahoney. Originally, an excerpt of the play was also going to enjoy a place of honor on Thursday at an undergraduate research conference that serves as a showcase of student achievement. Now it has become something else entirely.

Some college officials got the idea that the word “horniness” in the title might offend the sensibilities of Catholics on Staten Island. It is not entirely clear why this would be so, but there is no doubt that Catholics from Staten Island are an important reservoir of potential students for the college. And students from Catholic high schools were invited to the research conference, to get a taste of possibilities at the college.

So over the last few weeks, this production of “The Well of Horniness” has gone through a cyclone of contradictory decisions — or, as the college’s official spokesman puts it, “discussions.”

Initially, the play was banished from the conference, though officials said it still could be performed in the evening, after the conference had ended. And Mr. Mahoney would be allowed to display a poster about his project, as other students at the conference would do — but while a biology student might be able to mention the mating practices of fruit flies, Mr. Mahoney would not be allowed to include the title of the play.

Mr. Mahoney learned about this last week from Francisco Soto, the dean of humanities and social sciences. “Francisco said we could not do the extract from the play as part of the undergraduate research conference,” said Maurya Wickstrom, an associate professor who serves as a mentor to Mr. Mahoney. “As he expressed it, this is an extremely conservative community. The sexuality might be offensive to nuns, counselors from Catholic high schools, the high school students.”

Bob Huber, a spokesman for the school, said the main concerns were the possible presence of people as young as 14 at the conference. Ms. Wickstrom said that was not what she was told. “That was not part of the meeting that I was in,” she said. “I don’t remember age being mentioned. The issue revolved around the fact that College of Staten Island has a big Catholic constituency.”

That was also what George Sanchez, the chairman of the performing and creative arts department, heard. An associate provost, Susan Holak, told him that “she wasn’t sure how well this would go over with the Catholic schools,” Mr. Sanchez said. “The concern was the title, ‘The Well of Horniness.’ The conference got conflated with an outreach and recruiting event. She mentioned there was a nun who was very conservative.” The school spokesman, Mr. Huber, said: “I have no knowledge of that. The concern was regarding minors attending the conference.”

The associate provost, Ms. Holak, would not speak about the decision except to say on Monday that it would be shown on campus. Holly Hughes, the author of the play, said: “It’s not censorship, other than the fact that no one can see it. Yes, it’s being shown. It’s not being advertised. It won’t be presented during the conference.” Ms. Hughes notes that the play is 25 years old, and that around 1984, The Village Voice — of all publications — would not accept an ad because of the title.

“This is a terrible message to the student,” Ms. Hughes said. By late Tuesday, the school apparently had come to the same conclusion. Mr. Huber said the authorities were now willing to let it be presented during the conference. On Tuesday, Mr. Mahoney said he was scrambling “in chaos” to round up his actors and crew of 15 in time.

And it’s not yet known whether the Catholics of Staten Island would be more offended by the play itself, or the notion that they could not tolerate mention of the word “horniness” and the condition it describes.


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