Playwright Emily Freeman just wanted to provided a tool for children to see that families come in many different forms.
So Freeman latched onto the story of Roy and Silo, who made headlines in 2004 when a New York Times article described them as "gay penguins." "And Then Came Tango," her play for children about the penguins — and the ensuing fuss they caused — has four free Central Florida performances throughout the next weeks.
"I love the story," says Freeman, an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida. "We use animals all the time to tell challenging stories, and this is a true one."
Roy and Silo, male chinstrap penguins, participated in mating calls and movements together and also attempted to hatch a rock, as observed by zookeepers. When they were given an egg, the penguins successfully incubated it for 34 days and spent more than two months raising the chick, named Tango.
In 2005, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson wrote "And Tango Makes Three," a children's book about Roy and Silo. A few years later, it caught Freeman's eye.
"It's a beautiful book," she says. "I looked up the true story online."
What she found surprised her. Protesters had targeted the penguins. The book had been banned in many school libraries.
"I was fascinated by that, and thought there's a little more to this story," says Freeman, 28, a Winter Park native. So in 2010 she began developing the play while working on her master of fine arts degree at the University of Texas at Austin.
In her play, not based on the book, the actors portray a fictional Central Park zookeeper, a 10-year-old girl who is shadowing him, and various penguin pairs. True to life, the penguins do not speak but communicate with the audience through their movement.
In Freeman's fictionalized account, Lily the girl persuades zookeeper Walter to give Roy and Silo the orphaned egg. But Walter's job is on the line when the decision triggers protests.
The play is designed with second- and third-graders in mind, Freeman says, but she hopes it will be an intergenerational experience for children and their parents.
"We took it to a high school in Austin, and we had high-school students in tears," Freeman says. "So I do think it touches all ages."
Austin is also notable in her memory for the schools that did not see her play. As part of her coursework, Freeman had arranged to tour the play to 10 public schools. She sensed trouble on the tour's opening day.
"As soon as the male penguins began to bond, the principal stormed out," she says. "We found out the next day the tour was cancelled."
Undaunted, she took "And Then Came Tango" on a tour of private and charter schools. In 2013, it was named the Outstanding Play for young audiences at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
In Orlando, she offered to present the play in 10 different schools. Only Freedom High, in south Orange County, accepted. She will show the play to a class as part of a discussion of using theater for social change.
The hourlong play is presented by the college students in Freeman's class on touring shows for young audiences.
"There are very few plays for young people produced in the U.S. that celebrate and explore family diversity," she says. "Family can be an entire colony of penguins, a young girl and her single mom, a zookeeper and the animals he tends — or two male penguins with their adopted egg."
'And Then Came Tango'
The free play is presented at Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 E. Princeton St., and the UCF Visual Arts Building Auditorium, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando. For more information, go to facebook.com/projecttangotour
• April 6: 3:30 p.m. at The Rep (includes a post-show Q&A session for educators and parents)
• April 12: 2 p.m. at UCF
• April 13: 1 and 3:30 p.m., both at The Rep