Max Hightower, a senior at Sherman High School in Sherman, Texas, was elated after being cast as Ali Hakim, a lead character in the school’s production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
But soon after, the school’s principal called Hightower’s father to inform him of a new district policy.
“He said we’re instituting a new policy where only males can play males, and only females can play females,” Phillip Hightower told Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate KXAS-TV.
The elder Hightower was “devastated” by the decision, noting that Max has never been treated differently because of his gender identity — until now.
Aside from being absurd — cross-gender casting has been a reality in the theater world dating back centuries — the school district’s purported policy will likely prove logistically difficult if it tries to avoid cross-gender casting, in part because there’s frequently a dearth of males in high school production casting pools.
Illustrating that point, the sudden policy change also reportedly cost several other cast members their roles, according to the New York Post.
Max Hightower’s adult sister, Gracie, recounted the events involving her brother, writing that some female students cast as “cowboys” were told they could not participate in the play due to the school district’s decision to intervene in casting.
“Many opportunities were ripped away from kids not for bad grades, not for bad behavior, not for attendance, but for something that has absolutely nothing to do with the production whatsoever,” she wrote.
A group of parents, including Phillip Hightower, plan to appeal the decision to the school board.
“I’m not an activist. I’m not a highly political person. I have both liberal and conservative beliefs,” Phillip Hightower said. “I’m just a dad that wants to fight for his kid.”
The Sherman Independent School District said in a statement that they have no policy regarding how students are assigned roles in school productions, but “as it relates to this particular production, the sex of the role as identified in the script will be used when casting.”
The statement adds, “Because the nature and subject matter of productions vary, the District is not inclined to apply this criteria to all future productions.”
The district noted the production is being reviewed after allegations that Oklahoma! contains “mature adult themes, profane language, and sexual content,” and has pushed the production date of the musical from December to January as it works to produce a new “appropriate” version.
While there is some sexual innuendo in Oklahoma!, the allegations that the musical contains “profane language” strains credulity, as the musical is not vulgar or explicit, and the “sexual content” alluded to in the musical does not involve the display of explicit sexual acts or gratuitous nudity.
Phillip Hightower noted he was surprised by the district’s allegations that the musical contained inappropriate content.
“It struck me as kind of odd because it’s Oklahoma!” Hightower said. “Maybe I saw the abridged version, but it’s not Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Hightower told KXAS that his family has received significant support after his son’s story was made public.
“The outpouring of love and support was something like I’d never seen before — I didn’t see any hate in any of that,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to quit advocating for my son — ever. Max has shown me what real strength is.”
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