MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio — After Cardinal High School’s theater program had announced, cast and started rehearsals and set building for its spring performance, the play was abruptly canceled. The school board determined “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was inappropriate for its young audiences, but many of the actors and their families believe it was the wrong move.
“We’re all getting super, super excited about it. And then suddenly it’s just gone,” said Cardinal High senior Riley Matchinga. “Personally, I was devastated, along with all of my friends and cast and crew.”
Riley plans to pursue musical theater after graduation and was thrilled to land one of the lead roles in the spring play.
“It’s very, very funny. But I feel like it definitely goes deeper into having meaning, rather than just a funny little show,” she explained.
The play follows middle school students competing in a fictional spelling bee. It was chosen by the Cardinal musical director in the fall, partly because of the small cast required to fill the parts and partly as a challenge for the older students.
Many of the seniors had their freshman and sophomore theater experiences derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, they performed “The Little Mermaid” in relative normalcy, but many considered it an easy or “fluff” play.
“We really wanted to give them that opportunity to dig into some character work, [and thought] that this would be a really good chance for them to do that. They have the skill to do that and do it well,” explained Mandi Matchinga, Riley’s mother and the production’s assistant director.
She and others were caught off-guard in January when the school board abruptly decided to cancel the play.
“Why now? Why this show?” she said.
In a letter from the Cardinal Local Schools Board Monday, the superintendent wrote, “Its dialogue and song lyrics contain vulgarity and are therefore not suitable for our pre-teen and teenage students in an educational setting.”
Matchinga said, “What is your definition of vulgarity? Because when I’m looking, I’m confused.”
She explained the play has a PG-13 rating, as have some of the school’s previous performances. The production team discussed the choice with parents and actors and even chose to use an alternative age-appropriate version of one song about puberty.
“There are slight language issues, like ‘dammit.’ But Ursula said that in ‘The Little Mermaid,’ so it’s not like I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be terrible.’ It’s nothing new,” said Matchinga.
At one point, Jesus appears in the play, responding to one of the contestants’ prayers. Matchinga believes the scene, while perhaps irreverent, is not sacrilegious.
“As a Christian woman, I don’t look at that as something that would be blasphemous or distasteful,” she said.
The play also includes a same-sex couple.
“Riley’s character has two dads. So I could see, in a small town, how some people may have some issue with that,” Matchinga said. “There’s a couple innuendo-type jokes in the show, but we also did ‘The Addams Family’ with Morticia and Gomez - tons of innuendo.”
The district’s statement said any suggestion that the cancellation of the play was due to discrimination is mistaken:
“The district believes that the consideration of controversial issues has a legitimate place in the instructional program of our schools. However, the district wants its student productions to be something that community members of all ages may enjoy without adult supervision. In all aspects of its operations, the district vigorously enforces its prohibition against discriminatory harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, age, religion, ancestry, or genetic information.”
The production team plans to meet with the superintendent on Wednesday. If that discussion is not productive, the Machingas and other families plan to voice their concerns during a Feb. 8 school board meeting.
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