HYATTSVILLE, Md. (ABC7) — On Friday night, a middle school play took the stage amidst lingering controversy and parents now a part of the cast.
Last month, Hyattsville Middle School suddenly pulled the plug on a planned performance of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’. Students involved in the production had been rehearsing for months.
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The decision prompted outrage from some parents and LGBT advocates, who feared the play was canceled because of gay characters portrayed in the script.
“I think the problem that needs to be addressed is the homophobia that was part of the decision-making process to cancel it in the first place,” said Jamie McGonnigal.
McGonnigal is an LGBT advocate who has a background in theater and spent years producing Broadway concerts in New York. He also lives in Hyattsville and has a child who will one day attend Hyattsville Middle School.
“It’s important to me because I need my family to be represented,” he said. “I grew up not seeing any families like mine and people like me.”
In the days following the play’s cancellation in April, Prince George’s County Public Schools said the decision to cancel was not based on the presence of gay characters in the production. Instead, the school principal said, “concerns arose over the production’s use of profane language, racial jokes, and sexual innuendo/content and its appropriateness for our young performers and even younger children in the audience”.
But in response to community concerns, the school district ultimately decided to reverse its decision and let the show go on.
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In a letter sent to students and parents, the principal apologized “for not being more diligent in selecting the play at the beginning” and said he understood the anger, confusion, and frustration that the sudden cancellation had caused.
Students took the stage on Friday night, May 17 and will perform a second time on Saturday, May 18.
“She’s so excited, she’s been calling me all week, Aunt Terry are you coming? I said yes, I’ll be there,” said Terry Dessaso, whose great-nieceis a member of the cast. “All they want to do is perform.”
As part of the school district’s decision to bring back the play, it was designated PG-13 and feeder elementary schools were not invited to the play. A sign posted at the school said ‘Disclaimer: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children’.
In addition, all cast and crew members had to get signed permission forms from their parents/guardians.
ABC7 has also learned that two parents are now playing the roles of the two gay dads who are featured in the play.
A spokesperson for Prince George’s County Public Schools said the parents volunteered for those roles – but she could not yet say why or when that change was made. Several community members told ABC7 they were disappointed to hear that update.
“I think they should’ve let the kids play it because it’s for the kids,” said Dessaso. “To me, it’s good exposure.”
“If there are only adults playing the gay characters, it sends a message that there’s something wrong with those roles, that they’re not suitable for kids to play,” he said. “And I think that’s so incredibly the wrong message to be sending to kids.”
It’s unclear whether students were originally cast in those roles, prior to the controversy over the play’s content.
“I don’t know the entire story of how it all fell out and why there are adults playing the two gay characters in the show, but it’s hard not to look at that and think there was something wrong, some issue that people took with gay characters being on stage,” said McGonnigal.
So far, there has been no further explanation from the school district, despite ABC 7’s repeated requests for answers.
On Friday, a PGCPS spokesperson issued the following statement to ABC 7: “As stated in our previous message to the community, our priority remains on celebrating and focusing on the young performers and families who have invested considerable time, enthusiasm, and expense in this production”.
Some parents said they’re just relieved the kids got the chance to perform, after being crushed by the sudden cancellation in April.
The school system maintains its concerns surrounding ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ was focused on the age-level and grade-level appropriateness of the play’s material.
PGCPS has already said that its Department of Creative and Performing Arts will be reviewing its guidelines for age and grade-level appropriate theater productions, in hopes of avoiding a similar situation in the future.
Music Theatre International is the New York-based licensing agency for ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ and said that the play is very popular in high schools, but has also been performed by middle schools in the past.