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Can a Drag Queen teach Primary School Children about Acceptance?

At Anseo.net, we don’t write enough about the arts in education, even though we’re both passionate about the arts outside of our jobs as teachers. However, a play called Aunty Ben, from Super Paua, came to our attention through a friend of ours that works for the Irish Gay Theatre Festival. Aunty Ben is a play aimed at primary school children, which explores the relationship between a child and her friends’ reactions when they find out that her uncle is a drag queen. There are a number of plays aimed at primary school children out there, which we don’t go and see, but when David Quinn wrote an article in the Irish Catholic about the play, where he exhibited a less than tolerant attitude to it, we thought we would go and see for ourselves.

We attended the first showing of the play, which was sold out, and there was a diverse group of people of all ages, including a number of primary school-aged children. The play has 5 characters, Tracey and her two friends, Tracey’s mum and Aunty Ben. Tracey and her friends seem to be aged about 8 years old and they love to play dress-up. Tracey wants to be a pirate, Sammy wants to be a dancer and Anto, who loves baking pink cakes, (outwardly) wants to be a footballer. Tracey’s mum wanted to be a cowboy but settled for hotel management! Aunty Ben dresses up everyday.

The running theme throughout the show is how we should be able to love and accept everyone despite their differences. It was a clever move to use a drag queen as this is the difference that makes Tracey’s friends feel uncomfortable. It is also something that many adults struggle with today. 20 years ago it might have been his sexuality. 30 years ago, it may have been his religion. 50 years ago, it might have been the colour of his skin. Essentially, the only thing that makes Ben different to other men in the characters’ lives is that he likes to wear women’s clothes.

auntybenThe message is further driven when we explore the children’s own differences. Sammy is adopted and has two sets of parents. Anto also has two two families: his parents have separated and have children in new relationships. On top of this, Anto struggles with his love of baking, something he sees as “girly” and that people would laugh at.

I loved that the adult characters in the play teach the message of acceptance without much sentiment. Tracey’s mum tells her that bullies don’t go away when we leave school and we have to get good at standing up to them (without physical violence), and Ben tells her that bullying does hurt but you have to practice at not letting it affect you because what makes you different makes you happy.

I feel the play is excellently targeted to a primary school audience. There’s plenty of laughs for both children and adults and the moral of the story is perfectly pitched too. The group are hoping to tour primary schools and add workshops about difference, tolerance and acceptance and it would be well worth considering bringing a 3rd/4th class to. I made sure to see the reaction of the children in the theatre and it was amazing to see how transfixed they were. They didn’t seem to think anything of a six foot man wearing a wig, makeup and dress.

Super Paua could have picked any type of character to teach the idea of being true to yourself and acceptance. I think the use of a drag queen was well chosen as it is possibly one of the last supposed “taboos”, that is, the issue of gender identity. Most schools are willing to tackle prejudices like race, faith, culture, etc. If this had been a play about someone whose uncle was a member of the Travelling community, I doubt David Quinn would have had a problem with it.  However, transgender issues are not mainstream as yet. I have heard colleagues state that the new anti-bullying guidelines, which refer to transgendered bullying don’t affect them as primary school children aren’t affected! From what I saw, this play was less about drag queens and more about being happy in one’s own skin. I think the children in the theatre got that message. I wonder will the adults in charge of Irish primary schools allow that message to spread.

Aunty Ben is showing at the Teachers’ Club on 5th, 10th & 17th May in Dublin.

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