Tools for tackling bigotry

A new film called “Bullied to Silence” opens by dispelling the old “sticks and stones” adage that ends with “words can never hurt me.” Words can hurt. And sometimes, when bullied youth feel driven to suicide, they kill. “Bullied to Silence” was screened twice on Saturday at the Phoenix Art Museum, a fitting venue for a film for with such artistic flair. Filmmakers set the voices of diverse youth at the heart of this project. Several youth featured in the film have found that music, dance and other forms of artistic expression help them cope with others’ bullying behaviors.

Many of those who saw the first screening (including parents, educators, youth and others) commented afterward about their eagerness to take concrete steps to prevent bullying in their communities — by helping not only those who are bullied, but also youth whose pain prompts them to bully and youth who need skills to become effective bystanders. It reminded me of a book called “Cootie Shots” — which is subtitled “Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents and Teachers.”

“Cootie Shots” is a Fringe Benefits book published by Theatre Communications Group in New York. It’s edited by Norma Bowles, founder and artistic director for the L.A.-based theater company that inspired “the collection of plays, songs and interactive performances pieces against bigotry by a coalition of elementary school teachers, parents, theatre artists, therapists, administrators and students.” The preface by Rosa Furumoto also notes a common thread to each “Cootie Shots” work — “people committed to justice, respect and human dignity” — adding that “Almost every play contains elements of humor, idealism and hope for the future.”

The book is divided into four sections — noted below with themes and just a few examples of what they include. Each opens with a different work created by elementary age students.

  • My Family Tree is a Garden! Includes “What Color is Your Mama?” by Carol S. Lashof, “The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans” by Johnny Valentine with Norma Bowles, “Ode to Parents” by Billy Aronson and more. Theme: Love is what makes a family.
  • Get to Know Me! Includes “The Golden Rule” by Stacie Chaiken, “Snooty Patooty” by Mark E. Rosenthal and Carl Andress, “That Race Place” by Alice Tuan and more. Theme: Name-calling is never acceptable.
  • Be Proud of Your Difference! Includes “Mother Nature” by Nancy Alicia de Los Santos, “Opposition” by Tony Kushner, “She’s a Real Spaz” by John Belluso and more. Theme: Love and accept yourself and others. Celebrate what makes us each different, unique, special.
  • We Can Change the World! Includes “Four Heroes” by Peter Howard, “What’s with the Dress, Jack?” by Amity Wescott with Erik R. Stegman, “Matzoh” by Carol S. Lashof and more. Theme: Whether we stand alone or with others, if we’re not part of the solution, we might be part of the problem.

A small section of the book featuring artist biographies makes for a fascinating read in its own right. The 50 writers listed include actors, an architect, playwrights, songwriters, activists, parents, a social worker, teachers and others. More than two dozen bios for visual artists — including Keith Haring, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol — are also provided. Some artworks were created specifically for the book, and many are the work of children who’ve attended “Fringe Benefits” performances of the “Cootie Shots” show.

Folks eager to use these plays, songs and such in school or community settings needn’t have expertise in the performing arts. A “User’s Guide” at the back of “Cootie Shots” offers suggestions for using the book at home or in a classroom, and shares both dramaturgy and directing tips for performing the plays. It also addresses “advancing the work and permissions.” The book includes 54 selections, so there’s plenty for folks to choose from depending on which specific issues they’re eager to address.

To learn more about “Cootie Shots” or Fringe Benefits, which promotes social justice through theater, visit www.cootieshots.org.

– Lynn

Note: The National Alliance on Mental Illness works to reduce stigma against those living with mental illness through a program called Stigmabusters. Click here to learn more, and here for information on National Mental Health Month.

Coming up: Art meets incarceration

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