The Nashville Children’s Theatre (NCT) in Tennessee, founded in 1931, is recognized as the oldest professional performance center dedicated to children in the country. Its goal is to make all kids feel welcome and to encourage love, creativity, and acceptance — even of drag queens.
Being in Nashville means it can cull from some of the best talent in the country, and seats at the venue, which fits just over 500, are often in high demand.
The NCT production of The Wizard of Oz was no exception: the production, which includes elaborate set pieces, gorgeous costumery, and a stellar cast, received demands for some 10,000 tickets in a very short time.
As evidenced by the tweet below, most kids have been completely enamored with the show, eating up every minute of it, especially James Rudolph II’s performance as the Wicked Witch.
“The kids go crazy when he goes on the stage. He’s a fantastic actor,” Ernie Nolan, the director, told Occupy Democrats. “Also, he is SO funny!”
We had so much fun at the Nashville Children’s Theatre!! pic.twitter.com/KWpXKBnRkY
— Reagan Vernon (@Vernon3rdSCE) December 3, 2022
It’s about as unique a performance as you’ll see anywhere: the Tin Man plays his own percussion; there are some great puppets, including for the flying monkeys; and the character of the Wizard is a cool, jeans-wearing woman instead of a dotty old man.
Yet, despite the great entertainment this show has to offer, there have also been negative reactions to the casting, causing some racist and bigoted diatribes online, rant-filled emails and phone calls to the performance center, and even a death threat against Rudolph that now involves the police.
It began with the choice of Shelby Smith, a woman of color, as Dorothy. Smith is an experienced and versatile actor, yet some parents complained that she did not fit their view of Dorothy.
While Nashville itself remains fairly progressive, the surrounding area can be much more conservative. There were also some harsh reactions when the theater put on Diary of Anne Frank – not because of the topic of genocide, but because they openly discussed her getting her period.
But the harshest critics reserved their hatred for Rudolph, with posts like this one:
The comment thread for this post was particularly disgusting, with one person saying she would have walked out of the theater, another accusing the NCT of “brainwashing” kids, and one person bemoaning that their “babies…will have to live in the perversion that gets worse day after day.”
All because a man appeared in a dress, mind you. A man who, by the way, is not an actual drag queen when off the stage, but just was happy to play the part and give it some diversity.
Yet none of the production decisions should really have come as a surprise to anyone: NCT made clear in all of its promotional materials that the actress playing Dorothy is dark-skinned and that there are some gender-bending roles.
Nonetheless, some parents and others were outraged, culminating in a death threat call on Friday.
Despite all this, the actors are continuing to inspire kids and make all children feel welcome.
Nolan admitted that the threats are alarming, but appeared indefatigable in his determination to continue a message of acceptance.
He doesn’t care what the haters think of Rudolph. Perhaps, he suggested, some of the hatred is caused by the fact that he “looks fantastic in the dress.”
You be the judge:
The show will go on. If you’re lucky, you might still be able to get tickets. If not, well that’s a drag.
Nashville Children’s Theatre site: Nashville Children’s Theatre (nashvillechildrenstheatre.org)
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