‘Art & Class’ Unpacks a Real-Life Utah Controversy

It started out like a typical art class. In 2017 Mateo Rueda, an art teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Hyrum, shared a box with prints of classical art with his classes of fifth and sixth graders. To his surprise, the box, which was already at the school library, contained some artworks with nudity. 

This incident ignited controversy that quickly reverberated beyond the quiet Cache Valley town. After parents claimed that Rueda exposed the students to pornography, he was contacted by police. (When a deputy arrived at the school, principal Jeni Buist was shredding the controversial prints.) Though Rueda, parents and school officials all differed on key details, he was soon fired, and the story made national and international headlines.

Rueda’s firing inspired playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett’s newest play Art & Class. Dramatizing the ripped-from-the-headlines story, Bennett found a riveting debate about art and culture that could explore Utah’s complex relationships with race and religion, gender and education. He decided to gender swap two of the play’s characters—in his play, the teacher is a woman and the principal is a man—to reflect the gender imbalances in public education. Bennett also chose to leave the sexuality of Leland, the principal, ambiguous, reflecting those stifled by a conservative political and religious culture. Despite the social issues that Art & Class tackles, Bennett hopes his play does more than discuss hot-button issues. “I could have written a diagnosis of social ills, but I thought the truth—as close as I can get —would be far more useful,” he says on Plan-B’s website. “Plan-B’s mission is developing socially conscious theatre. To be conscious, you must be honest.”

Like Rueda, Lucía, the teacher character, is an immigrant in a mostly-white community. Flo Bravo, who plays Lucía, says she relates to the character as an immigrant who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. “It’s hard to be an outsider,” she says. “In a state like Utah, it feels like there’s no shortage of opportunity to stand out for all the wrong reasons.” Bravo says that the play reflected some of her ambivalence about being a Utahn in post-Trump America. “I don’t like that this play is based on a true story, but I’m glad Matt took such a disappointing event and turned it into a play that will hopefully start meaningful discussions across our state,” she says.

Art & Class was workshopped at four different theater companies over the past two years, including Plan-B and Pioneer Theater Company. Now it’s coming to life as an audio drama with Plan-B. This new format would be a curveball for any playwright, but Bennett has plenty of experience with audio-only productions. He wrote many of the radio drama collaborations between Plan-B and RadioWest, and now his play can be enjoyed, socially distanced, from anywhere. The production will be streaming on Plan-B’s website from April 15-25. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, but seriously, pay full price if you’re able to: local theater could use our support right now especially. 

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Josh Petersen
Josh Petersenhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

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