Tullahoma production of ‘Rent’ to go on despite opposition

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. (WKRN) – The award-winning Broadway stage play “Rent” is celebrating 20 years, but the musical is dividing a small Tennessee town.

A local production of the racy play is drawing opposition from some clergy members, who are saying a community theater shouldn’t be allowing a group of young performers to put on a production of the musical.

There is now a dark cloud of controversy looming over the South Jackson Civic Center in Tullahoma.

“’Rent’ really mirrors real life,” said assistant director Erik Petersen.

“I felt it was adult in its theme and orientation. I didn’t think it was appropriate for children,” said Community Christian Church Pastor Jim Zidan.

The musical is about a group of friends in New York’s East Village in the mid-90s and the devious issues they face.

Petersen plays the character Tom Collins, an HIV-positive professor let go from MIT.

“It tackles abandonment, it tackles drug abuse, it tackles dealing with terminal illness, it tackles gender identity, and it tackles being a member of the LGBT community,” Petersen said.

That’s one of the reasons Pastor Zidan couldn’t keep silent, so he sent an email to six other pastors making them aware of the controversial stage play.

“I feel that everyone has a right to speak their opinion in a community, but the church shouldn’t lose its right to have a voice,” Zidan said.

Another problem he has is the production is being put on by PACT, or Performing Arts for Children and Teens.

“I think it is totally inappropriate for children,” Zidan said. “There is no way my 11-year-old daughter will be involved in this production, and quite frankly, she will no longer be involved in PACT productions as long as the current management is in place.”

Highland Baptist Church Senior Pastor Wayne Wester expressed his concerns in the church’s monthly newsletter, The Highlander.

The pastor wrote: “In short is a musical about a group of college age students who choose to live a “bohemian” (sexually, morally, and legally permissive) lifestyle in New York City.”

He goes on to write, “Really? Do you agree with me and many of my fellow Pastors and concerned parents that this is inappropriate for such a group? If you do…. speak up about it! If you don’t… shame on you.”

The newsletter has been shared on social media.

“It really becomes something that says yeah we’ve come a long way, but the opposition has really shown me that we have a long way to go,” said PACT Director Robert Allen.

Only four of the performers are under the age of 18, the youngest 16, who got the blessing of their parents.

Before the teens were even chosen to take part, their parents had to sign a waiver with the understanding that “Rent” contains sexual content and foul language.

“If you point to any character in ‘Rent,’ I can point to a PACT teen who is struggling with whatever that character is struggling with,” Petersen said.

Those who plan to attend the show at the civic center will get a two-for-one: There is also an art show dealing with the homeless.

The photographer Joe Photo said ‘Rent’ and his homeless photos coincide.

“We would love for the public to move from a place of fear of people who are different, to a place of love, and that’s what we’ve really experienced in this project,” Photo said.

Finishing touches are being made for opening night. Despite all the controversy, the show will go on.

“The board has said that under no circumstances the show will be cancelled,” PACT director Allen said.

The pastors and others in opposition are considering holding a prayer rally once the place opens.

The show opens Friday at the South Jackson Civic Center. For additional information on the play, click here.

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