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A play about censorship is censored — and free speech groups are fighting back

Playwright Paula Vogel speaks onstage during the 2017 Tony Awards.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Playwright Paula Vogel speaks onstage during the 2017 Tony Awards.

Updated January 11, 2023 at 1:15 PM ET

PEN America and two other free speech groups are drawing national attention to Florida county school officials' decision to cancel a play that is itself about censorship.

Last week, Duval County Public School officials canceled a production of Paula Vogel's Indecent at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Officials said the play about a play about a love affair between two women is "inappropriate," as reported by WJCT.

PEN America, along with The National Coalition Against Censorship and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund released a statement condemning the decision and "urged school officials to rescind their decision and work with students to stage the play as planned."

Indecent is about the controversy surrounding a 1923 Broadway production of God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play by Sholem Asch. In the story, the daughter of a Jewish brothel owner falls in love with one of her father's prostitutes. Asch's script includes a love scene between the two women. The play was a hit in Europe and New York's downtown theater scene. But once it was translated into English and performed on Broadway, the entire cast was arrested and charged with obscenity.

The free speech organizations wrote that Indecent explores "LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, censorship, and antisemitism in the early 20th Century — themes which have striking relevance to the issues facing society today." They pointed out that Douglas Anderson's recent productions include RENT and Chicago, shows with, "as much, if not more, 'sexual dialogue' as is conveyed in Indecent."

"If vaguely-defined adult sexual dialogue' is reason enough to ban plays from school productions," the statement continued, "these, and many other canonical productions would be banned from student theaters — Romeo and Juliet for depicting sexually active teens, Oedipus Rex for its incestual themes, and other works that have serious literary and artistic value for students and community members."

Paula Vogel herself has also taken up the cause of her play's cancelation. The Pulitzer Prize winner released a statement and, according to an interview with PEN America, offered to meet with the school board. She also recorded a podcast with the student actors.

"What does surprise me is the courage of this high school student for speaking out and the courage of the students in that cast," she told PEN America. "The faculty and the administration have principally been silenced. I am fearing for their jobs. ... censorship of the arts is always the first step towards totalitarianism, and ultimately, towards genocide."

She goes on to say that other high schools have performed Indecent without incident: "It's up to the director and the students. If they don't want to kiss on stage, then let them hug. I don't police stage directions. I don't police my script. And if a high school wants to produce one of my plays and change the F word to 'fudge,' I don't care."

In response to NPR's request for comment on the free speech groups' condemnation of the cancellation, Duval County Public School representative Sonya Duke-Bolden writes, "Indecent contains adult sexual dialog that is inappropriate for student cast members and student audiences. 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."

According to WJCT's Brendan Rivers, Douglas Anderson Principal Tina Wilson informed cast members that Indecent would be replaced by the Chekhov play The Seagull.

In an email to students, she wrote, "Although students were required to provide parental consent to appear in the original selection, a closer review of the mature content of 'Indecent' led us to the conclusion that 'Seagull' is better suited for a school production."

Indecent is, "about the purity of love, the strength within a community and the shallowness of those who try to silence identity," said Madeline Scotti, a member of the Douglas Anderson cast in an Instagram post. She urged people to read Vogel's play and God of Vengeance, "and have conversations we are being banned from having."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.