Pulitzer-winning playwright criticizes Duval County school for canceling student production

District claims play contains ‘adult dialog that is inappropriate for student cast members, audiences’

Principal apologizes after segregated meetings at Douglas Anderson canceled amid backlash

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A student production of the stage play “Indecent” at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville was called off by school administrators, citing “inappropriate” dialog, the school district said.

In a stroke of irony, the play’s story, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, was inspired by the production and debut of a controversial 1923 Broadway play, “Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance.” The play’s narrative sees the cast arrested for obscenity due to the show containing a lesbian relationship and a scene depicting the Torah being thrown.

News4JAX did not obtain a copy of the play’s script in time for publication of this article, so the content of the version that was going to be produced at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts could not be independently reviewed.

The Director of Communication for Duval County Public Schools, Tracy Pierce, released a statement to News4JAX, explaining the decision.

“‘Indecent’ contains adult sexual dialog that is inappropriate for student cast members and student audiences,” Pierce said. “It’s that simple. The decision has no relevance to any legislation but is rather a function of our responsibilities to ensure students engage in educational activities appropriate for their age.”

There had been reports the cancellation of the play was connected to the “Parental Rights in Education” law, known to critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, a policy that has drawn intense national scrutiny from critics who argue it marginalizes LGBTQ people.

Douglas Anderson student and one of the play’s main cast members, Madeline Scotti, took her criticism of the school’s decision to Instagram.

“They are trying to tell us that this play is dirty, amoral, obscene and of course indecent,” Scotti said in the video. “And by that nature, they are trying to tell me that I myself and my community is dirty, immoral, obscene and indecent.”

The play’s author, Paula Vogel, caught wind of the school’s decision and released a statement condemning it. That statement can be read below.

“I am saddened to learn that the Duval School Board has censored the Douglas Anderson School of Performing Arts production of my play INDECENT.

The play was written as an homage to Sholem Asch's play GOD OF VENGEANCE, written in 1906, which was a big success all over Europe. Presented in Yiddish, both Jewish and Gentile audiences in Berlin, Poland, Russia, England and Eastern Europe flocked to the play.

Asch's play documents the violence against women, the antisemitism of the time, and respectfully depicts two young women who fall in love. The depiction of love in 1906 between two women was tastefully done and hailed as "pure" by Yiddish writers of the time.

It became a standard in the repertory of Yiddish theatres.

Only in 1923 on Broadway in an English production were the vice cops called in to arrest the cast; the play was deemed obscene. Using the lesbian characters as a pretext, the Broadway Production was shuttered due to the rising antisemitism in the 1920's: an American fascism

Bloomed with deadly consequence against Jews, immigrants, endorsed by Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, some politicians, other American Nazi's and the KKK.

As a playwright who wrote a play about how censorship is a first step toward genocide, I am puzzled about the school board's decision. There is nothing prurient about Indecent. I use parts of Sholem Asch's original text for the two girls. For the past 40 years, I receive requests from high schools to change language in my plays, and to restage the scenes, ignoring my stage directions. And I readily give my permission. There have been high school productions of INDECENT where the student actors hold hands. The Victorian translation is demure, and one can amend my updated translation with permission.

But it is as an educator that I am angry and appalled. Why hurt the students who are aiming to become theatre makers? Instead of letting them discover the issues of antisemitism, intolerance, censorship and the Holocaust the school board is censoring them.

Disempowering young artists at this crucial age borders, to me, on an obscene act.

I hope the School Board reconsiders their action, which may come from a lack of knowledge about theatrical process and the two plays: INDECENT and GOD OF VENGEANCE. I would like to participate in a respectful conversation with the school board.

Our most important duty as educators is to support young students in their most important creation: the creation of who they are, and the life-long creation of who they will become.

The tools of dialogue, belief in themselves, reading, performance and forging community are the primary goals of education in the arts.

As a Jewish woman who suffered homophobia and antisemitism as a teenager, I want to tell every member of the cast at Douglas Anderson that you are in a larger community, the community of theatre artists, who love who you are, and who you will become. We value the art you will make in years to come, whether in Florida or in the larger world. I am so proud of your courage and your honesty. Great art, and great lives, are made of that. As Lin-Manuel Miranda of HAMILTON said: “Love is love is love.” Dear school board: please love your students.”

Paula Vogel, playwrite 'Indecent'

About the Author:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.