On January 5, a high school production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent was cancelled in Jacksonville, Florida, in what students believed was an act of antisemitic and homophobic censorship. Playbill initially reported on the then-unfolding story at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts shortly after student Madeline Scotti posted an Instagram video announcing the production’s cancellation, citing Florida’s recent “Don’t Say Gay” law as the culprit. A month later, the students are determined to put on their show, but the escalating anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in Florida has made them cautious. They tell Playbill that they fear a production of Indecent will be a high risk for hateful attacks should they perform it in Florida.
It's a sign of the danger that LGBTQ students face in states like Florida, where censorship and homophobic rhetoric have escalated.
The play 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. Ironically, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts seem to be playing out the events of Indecent, cancelling its student production because of sudden concerns surrounding the “mature content” of the material—even though the school had mounted Chicago and Rent previously.
Following the news of the cancellation breaking, it wasn’t long before theatre artists across the country rallied around the students, many offering to share resources or ideas to help. Most notably, Vogel herself stepped in.
Said Vogel in a statement, "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 ... 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."
Nearly one month later, the students are still determined to proceed with their production of Indecent, but are struggling to find a safe avenue. Vogel has reached out to them to offer assistance with putting on the show. Scotti and two other students have met with Vogel to discuss a path forward for Indecent, but a full conversation with Vogel and the entire cast has yet to occur.
But any path forward is tough because of the culture surrounding the students in Florida, which is the home of the controversial Parental Rights in Education Law (also known as the "Don't Say Gay" law). The legislation prohibits educators from discussing gender identity in classrooms kindergarten to third grade. The passage of the bill has had a chilling effect on educators and has led to further censorship.
Due to the escalating hateful rhetoric, both in Florida and other states, Scotti says they fear being the target of attacks if the production of Indecent happened locally. “It’s not so much the trouble of finding a space or funding," Scotti tells Playbill. "It’s more that Jacksonville has been the home of many antisemitic and homophobic attacks. So by performing the show in Jacksonville, even though the story should be told in Jacksonville, there's a lack of safety."
The cancellation of Indecent is only the beginning of the battle against arts censorship, Scotti warns, as they note that recently, Douglas Anderson has also experienced the first wave of book bans. A recent Governor Ron DeSantis law has prompted schools to conduct reviews of dozens of books to determine whether or not they are appropriate for in-school consumption. A list available on the school district’s website of books now being reconsidered includes Angels in America, the Harry Potter series, and Catcher In The Rye. A Florida school district has banned The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
“They sent out a list of books that detail marginalized communities or are written by minority authors…even books about Rosa Parks are on this list, and they now either have to be covered up or taken out of classrooms to be reviewed before we’re allowed access to them again. It feels a lot like history is repeating itself,” Scotti says.
It's not just books, Scotti describes a heightened fear around the school theatre productions, saying, “As the arts school of Jacksonville, we’re well known in North Florida for producing art that questions things. And now that we’re picking shows for next year and our teachers are saying, ‘I think we have to go the safe route and do something that won’t outrage people’ is terrifying, because that’s never been an issue before.”
Yet, unsettling as these changes may be, the theatre students of Douglas Anderson have only grown more determined to defend the arts. “I think it just makes us all the more angry and motivated to pursue theatre and make sure theatre doesn’t die,” says Scotti.
It helps Scotti and their classmates to know that despite all the external forces working against them, there’s also an entire theatre community rooting for them from afar. “It’s definitely isolating where we are because there are so little people to our community in Jacksonville, so seeing that outrage from artists in New York and London," says Scotti. "There’s a strong sense of knowing that we’re not alone in this."
As for what's next, Scotti urges anyone who wants to support the students of Duval County, or even just to prevent this from happening in their own communities, to vote and be aware of the anti-LGTQ bills currently making their way through local and state legislatures. “Much of this comes from local elections and state elections,” Scotti remarks. As for the future of Douglas Anderson's production of Indecent, Scotti encourages everyone to stay tuned for further action items to soon be posted on their Instagram.