Just 10 months after Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" Law (colloquially known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill) was passed, students at a Jacksonville high school feel they are already experiencing the effects of the bill's anti-LGBTQ censorship.
Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, an arts magnet school with an extensive theatre program, was set to perform the Paula Vogel-penned play Indecent beginning March 1, with the first rehearsal set for January 5. But something different happened on January 5: an Instagram post by student Madeline Scotti, which has now been seen and shared by many prominent figures in the theatre industry, announced that the production had been shut down, and would be replaced by Chekhov's The Seagull. In an email sent to students obtained by Playbill, the school's principal, Tina Wilson, cited that "a closer review of the mature content" of Indecent led them "to the conclusion that Seagull is better suited for a school production."
In a thematic resemblance to the real events playing out at Douglas Anderson, Indecent depicts the true story of Jewish novelist Sholem Asch, and the controversy surrounding his 1906 Yiddish play God of Vengeance. Notably, the work included a lesbian couple in its story, and is recorded as featuring the first ever kiss onstage between a lesbian couple in American theatre. The play's 1923 Broadway production was met with the arrest and conviction of the play's producer and cast on obscenity charges. Vogel's Indecent contends with the dangers of censorship on both marginalized communities and society as a whole through the experiences of the cast of God of Vengeance. The work also depicts the actresses playing the lesbian couple onstage as having an offstage romance, making both Asch's and Vogel's plays a powerful assertion of LGBTQ+ and Jewish representation.
Theatre students at Douglas Anderson are not convinced that Indecent's mature content is the singular reason for the play's cancellation. The school produced Chicago just two months ago and Rent in 2021, both of which contain equally incendiary themes—though not as central to the plot as Indecent, Rent even itself depicts multiple gay relationships. According to Scotti, their producer shared with the company that he has "rarely had to ask for the approval of a play, almost never." Scotti also noted that the production of Indecent was approved and announced in May 2022, and in order for students to audition, a parental signature and consent statement was required.
Therefore, the students wonder: what has changed between then and now that would prevent works like Indecent being performed at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts? The common denominator, students believe, is Florida's recently passed "Don't Say Gay" law, which went into effect in July of last year.
In Scotti's Instagram post announcing the cancellation, they state that during the January 5 rehearsal, the company was notified that Indecent would be shut down "not because of, but related to the ideals stated in the 'Don't Say Gay' bill." The email from the principal was sent out later that evening.
Although the bill is intended to prohibit discussions surrounding sexuality and gender identity in grades Kindergarten through third, the wording of the bill could grant authority to apply the legislation to older grades.
"Indecent is about the purity of love, the strength within a community, and the shallowness of those who try to silence identity. Indecent is a queer, Jewish love story," says Scotti in their Instagram video, where they also mention that the 100 year anniversary of God of Vengeance being shut down on Broadway is the same week Douglas Anderson's production of Indecent was set to open. "100 years, and we are still fighting the same injustice that Sholem Asch and his company did," they state.
Scotti's Instagram video has since been viewed by Vogel herself, and the Indecent playwright commented: "I send my support to you and all the artists. Hate and intolerance are indecent; never love. Thanks for your courage. This will not end here."
Vogel also tweeted to the school's leadership, writing, "Dear Principal Tina Wilson, Superintendent Diana Greene: As a teacher and administrator for 40 years, I know it’s not easy. Buy why cancel Indecent rather than structuring post-play discussions? It is a unique way to look at the Holocaust as well as gender and censorship and antisemitism. What a field day for education! I believe your students are young artists who can more than handle the conversation. It would be great for the parents too. And I am more than willing to come down for the conversation."
During the writing of this article, Slave Play playwright Jeremy O. Harris tweeted out in support, quoting another Vogel tweet, which asked anyone in Florida to help the students carry on the play somehow. O. Harris' tweet asked if any followers had access to a theatre space to lend to the students so the play could go on as scheduled, and Vogel replied: "Would love for you to join us. We are organizing this week," suggesting that, with help from the playwright herself, the curtains may not close quite yet for the Douglas Anderson company of Indecent.