By Josh Inocéncio
There are two pervasive issues in our society that high schools, especially in Texas, don’t confront enough: rape and colonialism.
But these harsh realities are what Carnegie Vanguard High School’s U.I.L. One-Act Play production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell forces audiences to contemplate. This production, which has stirred audiences across Texas for its visceral portrayal of male-male rape and colonial violence, has advanced to the 6A State contest and will appear at The University of Texas in Austin on May 25. In a special collaboration to raise funds for Holy Day to attend the Edinburg Fringe Festival, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) hosted a performance, which is directed by Carnegie’s theater teacher Steward Savage.
Set on the frontier in 19th-century Australia where European settlers are subjugating indigenous populations to slavery, Holy Day follows convict laborer Nathaniel Goundry (Jackson Burnham) and his cronies as they barge into Nora Ryan’s (Anastasia Vayner) rural home with her slave, Obedience Ryan (Viviana Collymore). Intertwined with this narrative is Elizabeth Wilkes (Hailey J. Strader) searching for her stolen baby and the indigenous woman Linda (Gebriella Hailemariam), who Wilkes believes, and later confirms, is the perpetrator. While the play features several plotlines, a major story is the sexual violence Nathaniel enacts not only on an indigenous woman but on his mute subservient, Edward Cornelius (Cyrus Shafiei).
To capture the bleak lives of these characters, Savage and his student crew used minimal set pieces, such as clumps of dry grass and a torn screen onto which a technician projects videos of desert storms in Australia.
But the most challenging thread of the play is the actors’ raw portrayals of these flawed yet vulnerable characters. Early on Nathaniel hints his sexual predilections toward Edward by commenting that he’s well endowed, and he pushes Edward to expose himself to Nora. However, after Edward sleeps with Obedience, Nathaniel finds out and, when he discovers Edward alone, confronts him, forcibly kisses him, and drags him offstage to rape him. In the following scene, Obedience drags Edward into Nora’s home, shirtless and bloodied. As the women struggle to discern what happened, the mute Edward is able to communicate (mostly through a letter) that Nathaniel has raped him on multiple occasions and cut out his tongue to silence him.
The high school actors portraying these mature roles have garnered accolades at each level of competition, including Best Actor for Jackson Burnham every round.
But the controversy surrounding Carnegie’s production emerged on the road to State. At the Region competition in Katy, some parents from other high schools were so outraged by Holy Day that they filed complaints with the state office and the Houston Independent School District. Fox News’ conservative cultural critic Todd Starnes weighed in on the controversy (without, apparently, even seeing the play), chastising the play’s content as inappropriate for high school. But Starnes’ diatribe neglects to capture the play’s story. Instead, he lambasts moments, such as adult language, out of context.
To comply with U.I.L. rules, the principal must approve a production, which serves to mediate misplaced anger other schools may have with a play’s content. And as a Houston Chronicle column on this production notes, Carnegie’s principal, Ramon Moss, and the students’ parents have steadfastly supported Holy Day. There are even trigger warnings in the program.
But even in spaces where the production has support, the male-male rape has baffled viewers. After the HSPVA performance, a speaker at the public forum suggested Nathaniel was a gay man born in the wrong time and his motive to rape a younger man was grounded in his taboo, homosexual urges.
What audiences must grasp, however, is that Nathaniel’s sexual proclivities are rooted not in a struggle with homosexuality but with power. In 1850 when the play takes place, the Austrian-born writer Karl-Maria Kertbeny hadn’t yet coined the term “homosexuality” in public discourse; therefore, society conceptualized acts of sodomy differently than how Western cultures conceive gay relationships in the 21st century. Instead of wrestling with forbidden urges, Nathaniel rapes men and women and then chops off their tongues to demonstrate power in a colonial space where unmitigated masculinity thrives on the lawless frontier.
These representations are why Holy Day is crucial for U.I.L. audiences in Texas. The production challenges preconceived (and often false) notions of history by depicting the nuances of these horrors. And this high-school production even has the playwright’s blessing. From Australia, Bovell wrote the students on Facebook, “I am following this debate with great interest. You have my full support and admiration. Sometimes the theatre offends in order to challenge and enable us to look at difficult truths. Its ability to do that is why it remains a relevant art form. Stand by your work! And I will stand with you.”