HYATTSVILLE — Following adverse reactions from parents and more than 20,000 people signing a petition, Hyattsville Middle School decided to reschedule their school musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” after canceling it days before it was set to premiere.
Hyattsville Middle School was set to open the play on May 2, but after three months of rehearsals, the play was abruptly canceled a little over a week before the play its start date.
Students were told there was a complaint about the portrayal of a married gay couple in the play and that the show would not go on, said Jamie McGonnigal, a local parent who found out about the situation through a neighborhood parent group. One of the characters in the play has two gay dads who are featured briefly in the production.
“I was through the roof,” McGonnigal said. “I’m a gay dad, I’m a gay parent. We live two blocks from the middle school. Our kid is young but one day he will he will most likely end up going to the Hyattsville Middle School. So the very idea that the school thinks that gayness is something to be censored or that LGBT people are something to be censored was obviously very alarming.”
He and several other parents and community members attended a small protest at the school on April 23 and had a meeting with the administration.
Everyone was angry, especially the kids of the parents in the show as they had spent money on costumes and props and put in the rehearsal time. He told the parents that if a decision was not made, to reverse the cancellation, he would start a petition.
Sure enough, the cancellation remained in effect, and McGonnigal then decided to take action and started an online Care2 petition, which gained more than 30,000 signatures, calling on Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) to reverse the decision.
“In 2019, as a gay parent, it’s important that my son be able to see families like his represented. The idea that this is even a controversial topic, or that my family could be seen as “profane” by Prince George’s County Public Schools is frankly abhorrent,” he said on the petition page.
Shortly after the cancellation, PGCPS issued a statement saying “Our chief concern focused on the age-level and grade level appropriateness of the material. We are not seeking to remove gay characters from the production.”
“I work in LGBT advocacy, my husband works in LGBT advocacy, and we know the power of pressure, and we know the power of organizing, and I don’t think that school officials or county officials really understood the damage that their decision could make and how far-reaching the reaction would be,” McGonnigal said.
However, Hyattsville Middle School Principal Thomas Boone sent a letter to parents on April 25 denying claims that the play was canceled due to the inclusion of gay characters. He said that the school appreciates the play’s themes of self-love and acceptance and they “celebrate our diversity and recognize the many rich contributions of the LGBTQ community to the greater Hyattsville community.” Instead, the play was canceled because of language and other forms of mature content.
“To be clear, 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,” Boone continued. “Despite diligent efforts to tailor the production to our students and audience, the theater licensing agency declined our requests to alter the musical, which led to our original decision to cancel the upcoming performances.”
Boone thanked the families and community members for attending the meeting at the school about the production and next steps saying that through their thoughtful dialogue they “were able to pursue an appropriate compromise for the entire school community.”
He informed the community that the play would be rescheduled with a disclaimer to audiences about mature content.
The play will instead run on May 17 and 18 to allow students to make up for lost practice time and will contain a disclaimer about the mature content. All cast and crew will have to sign a permission form, and the school’s feeder elementary schools will not be invited to the play.
PGCPS Board of Education Member Pamela Boozer-Strother, who represents District 3 where Hyattsville Middle School is located, said she fully supports the decision of the musical to continue.
“As the initial selection of the musical demonstrates, PGCPS encourages the full expression of the diversity of our community, including our LGBT parents,” she said. “As a lesbian parent and member of the Board of Education, I will continue to work with our Board and administration on building an inclusive community where all students and families are welcome, safe and supported.”