‘Chimps’ evolves into controversy

“Is man an ape or an angel?” is a question asked in the controversial play Bobby and the Chimps, premiering Thursday at USF.

The play is causing a stir around campus, with a plot that examines whether evolution or creationism should be taught in public school classrooms.

The play, written by award-winning English playwright James Phillips, is set in 2008 — concurrent with the presidential election.

The audience is introduced to the main character, Bobby Young, while he is campaigning to be elected to the school board in Bethlehem, Pa. Young’s campaign team is embroiled in a creationism vs. evolution dispute, and the play features a boisterous and vigorous debate of the issues, Phillips said.

Young, the son of political activists, opposes creationism at the play’s beginning, said Ron Richards, director of Theatre and Dance communications and marketing. The character undergoes an organic process that challenges his beliefs, Richards said.

A display in the USF Library drew objections to the play’s story line and script. The display featured quotes from the play, including “We’re selling atheism like cigarettes in the school yard” and “Would you raise your kid a Christian?”

“It caused quite a scuffle in the Library,” Phillips said. “It really pissed off a lot of people.”

The controversy was not surprising to Don Erikson, who serves as chaplain of Liberation, a liberal Christian organization at USF. Erikson, who acknowledged that this is an age-old debate, said he is able to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the science that supports evolution.

“It is important for Christians to understand that there are many other alternative religious and cultural views on creation,” Erikson said. “Evolution and religion — even Christianity — do not need to be mutually exclusive.”

The controversy surrounding the play surprised the playwright, who said that the debate is not an issue in England, where evolution is taught in schools.

The play will be performed by a cast of 11 USF theatre students. The performance is part of the British International Theater (BRIT) Program at USF, a transatlantic theater visitation program.

The BRIT Program, which began in 1991, exposes students to British perspectives on theater and language, Richards said.

Funded by a Florida state-matching grant, the BRIT Program enables British actors, directors and designers to work with undergraduate theater students. Unique to USF, the program allows the University to be associated with powerhouse theater productions and offers students a rare opportunity to work with professionals in the theater industry, Richards said.

“It’s a rare and wonderful program we are lucky to have,” he said.

Bobby and the Chimps will be performed at USF in Theatre II at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and March 4 through 7, with one 3 p.m. performance March 8. Ticket prices range from $8 to $15. Phillips and the actors will also hold a post-show discussion on Friday and March 6.

The purpose of the play is not to attack religion, Richards said. The play challenges both liberal and religious points of view, Phillips said.

“It will explore the hot-button topics and question issues about where you come from,” he said. “The debate will test deeper issues of where faith, love and politics meet in America.”