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The show will go on: Cardinal School Board agrees to allow spring play after concerns over ‘vulgarity’

02-08-23 CARDINAL PLAY SCHOOL BOARD MEETING.jpg
Posted at 7:37 AM, Feb 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-09 07:37:13-05

MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio — After drawing national attention and public outrage for canceling the high school’s spring play, the school board at Cardinal Local Schools will now allow the performance of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to move forward.

A previous statement from the district said the play was halted because it contained “vulgarity.”

READ MORE:School board abruptly halts high school musical because of ‘vulgarity’

During the Wednesday night school board meeting, the board president announced the district was walking back the decision.

“Initially, the board was informed that the script could not be revised, but that changed when Music Theatre International, the publishing company, contacted the Cardinal theater department to confirm revisions could be made with the help of their authors,” Board President Linda Smallwood read from a statement.

A public comment period followed the announcement, where many community members, parents and students expressed frustration about the process and gratitude for the eventual decision.

“I would like to thank the board for making the right decision. I have to admit I had so little faith it would, that I did not prepare an alternate speech, so I’m coming off the cuff here,” one man said.

A parent added, “It was irrational, it was hasty, it was done poorly.”

When the district initially announced it was halting the production, it shared few details about what was found objectionable.

Parents and cast members shared that the play included mild language, an appearance by Jesus and a character with a pair of gay fathers. They told News 5 they had already elected to use a more school appropriate version of one song about puberty, but said they were confused why the “Spelling Bee” performance was deemed less acceptable than previous productions with mature content.

“It was mostly about language and a song that the board didn’t agree with,” Cardinal Superintendent Jack Cunningham said after the meeting.

Students said they were relieved to be moving forward with the performance, but wondered if public pressure was the driving force for the board’s decision.

“I don’t know if they’re doing it to appease the public or if they really believe it… so it’s still shaky,” said Cardinal High senior Noreen Baril.

The cancellation garnered attention and support from the theater community across the country.

This week, the Dramatists Guild of America issued a statement in response to the move in Ohio and a similar cancellation of a different production in Florida.

“The administration bent to outside pressure from a parent who claimed the show was 'vulgar,' that it referenced Jesus, and it included a character with two dads,” the statement said. “The school board’s actions, as with 'Indecent,' were fear-based and reactive, and will have similarly dire consequences.

A Canton community theater invited the students to watch a performance of the same play over the weekend. The play’s original writers reached out and offered to make revisions. Some of the original Broadway cast members also offered their support.

READ MORE:Canceled Cardinal High School play garners attention from Broadway stars

On Feb. 1, one original cast member, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, well-known for his role on ABC's "Modern Family," posted a video of support on social media. In the post, he suggested the reasons for canceling the play were “obvious and thinly veiled covers of some bigger things,” namely the inclusion of a same-sex couple.

“Definitely more than one person at this school is gay or lesbian or bisexual. The message that that sends to them that this is not ‘family appropriate’ or ‘family friendly’ is toxic and harmful and kind of abusive,” Ferguson said in the video.

It’s a claim the district has denied.

“I know that might’ve been a concern that the board might’ve gotten early from communication,” Superintendent Cunningham said of complaints received from community members. “But the board’s issue and stance on that was never a discussion.”

The original cast held a virtual meeting with the student cast ahead of the school board meeting Wednesday to offer their support and advice.

“The most advice that they gave us was to stand for what you believe in,” Baril said.

The school board said it made nearly two dozen revisions to the play’s script before giving final approval. The initial cancellation and debate cost students several weeks of production and rehearsal time, but some believe they gained a valuable learning experience.

“I think this is going to equip them in the future, when they see something they feel is an injustice. They’re going to more likely then to have the tools to talk to the people involved and make change in their communities,” said Mandi Matchinga, a parent and the assistant director for the production.

The revised version of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be performed at Cardinal Middle School’s Cafetorium on March 10, 11 and 12.

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