The cast of Boise High School’s production of “Inherit the Wind” is getting a lesson in more than theater — the students are learning the importance of freedom of speech and thought, as well as tolerance.
The play, written in the early 1950s, fictionalizes the famed 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which focused on the debate between creationism and evolution and polarized American culture in the early 20th century.
“It’s a debate that’s ongoing and that is as important now as it was when it happened,” says 17-year-old student director Mercedes Schrenkeisen, who is heading the production.
Coincidentally, the topic of evolution versus creationism is again on the table, most recently in a bill before the Idaho Legislature that seeks to amend the state constitution to allow the Bible to be taught in schools for nonreligious purposes. It’s a move that some think could open the door for creationism to be taught.
But the bigger picture for Schrenkeisen is the idea of the need to accept other viewpoints, and that’s a concept that permeates the play. It also relates to many polarizing issues, such as gender identity and cultural diversity, that she sees every day at school.
“We have such a mix here at Boise High with the Mormon community and other religions. We have tons of culture with the LGBTQ community, our refugee and foreign exchange programs, and we have lots of atheists,” she says. “I think we, as students, have come to the kind of understanding that is talked about in the play, that one must have the right to think their own way. Still, you run into people who don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
The production is made possible through a grant from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science that pays for the rights to perform the play. (That’s $100 per performance.) Boise High is one of 20 schools across the country doing a production of the play to mark the 90th anniversary of the Scopes trial.
Longtime Boise High drama teacher Brett Eshelman applied for the grant in 2015, then handed the project off to John Rowe, who took over as the drama teacher when Eshelman retired.
“It’s great when theater can spark another kind of conversation,” Rowe says.
“Inherit the Wind” premiered on Broadway in 1955. Playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee used the Scopes trial as a metaphor for the paranoia surrounding the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigations into supposed subversive activities by private American citizens. People who had more liberal leanings and thoughts — many of whom worked in the entertainment business — came under suspicion and were brought before the committee to testify and name names. Many saw their lives ruined.
The Scopes trial polarized people in America in the 1920s. As life began to modernize, a large segment of people felt their traditional values were being challenged. The trial happened in a small town in Tennessee, a state where teaching evolution in schools was against the law. The American Civil Liberties Union pushed for a test case, and John Thomas Scopes stepped up to be tried. Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality.
The case became a hot-button issue for the country as two famed attorneys battled in court. Clarence Darrow represented Scopes; William Jennings Bryan stood for the prosecution. Their heated discourse made for good fodder for the press, which covered the proceedings with daily, often inflammatory, stories.
“When we learn about the trial in history class, it comes off like an attack on religion and creationism,” Schrenkeisen says. “This play does a fantastic job of getting across is that it’s not an attack on people’s religion, it’s really the idea of acceptance. Ultimately, it’s about having the right to think and speak freely about what you believe, and that’s for both sides. That makes it so cool.”
‘Inherit the Wind’
7 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, to Saturday, March 12, Boise High School Auditorium, 1010 W. Washington St. $7 general, $5 with student I.D. at the box office.