Southold defends decision to cast female as ‘Rent’ drag queen

03/10/2014 2:00 PM |

Southold High School Rent

Southold School District officials confirmed Monday that a female has been cast in the role of a male drag queen in the high school’s upcoming performance of “Rent,” but district and drama club advisors say the decision was based solely on the student’s audition. 

Superintendent David Gamberg, musical director Kelli Baumann and play co-directors Casey Rooney and Jessica Ellwood met with The Suffolk Times on Monday to discuss the rock musical production that has created some controversy within the district.

Opening night is set for March 20.

Earlier in the school year, a pair of Southold residents contacted the The Suffolk Times with concerns about the school’s handling of gay characters in the play. One anonymous letter-writer said the play was inappropriate since it could “put students in the position to have to play gay/lesbian or drug addicted [characters.]” One parent said her child believed the district was making changes that might offend gay students, including casting a female as the drag queen Angel, traditionally played by a male actor.

But school officials said Monday the casting decision was based on the female student’s strong audition.

“The gender of the character can’t be changed, but any student can play that character,” Mr. Rooney said. “A girl that we have cast in this part is the best person for the role. [She’s] a very talented young lady.”

Although the script calls for a male actor in this part, Mr. Rooney said the school has the discretion to change the gender.
Ms. Baumann said this arrangement isn’t uncommon.

“With some schools, maybe there are drama clubs that have two guys and 20 girls,” she said. “So, you do have to make adjustments.”

Southold is licensed to produce the school edition of “Rent”, Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award-winning musical.

Mr. Rooney said the school edition “tones down the language” and omits “Contact,” a song that’s sexual in nature.

Even though homosexuality, AIDS and drug use are elements of the play, the story is more about a community of people, Mr. Gamberg said.

“‘Rent-School Edition’ is about a group of young people trying to discover who they are, what they stand for and who they can trust,” Mr. Gamberg said. “‘Rent-School Edition’ is not about homosexuality. It is not about AIDS and it is not about drug use.”

“We can say the public will be seeing the school edition of ‘Rent’ as carried out through high schools across the country,” he added. “There’s nothing that [the school’s drama club] didn’t do in this production that they wouldn’t have done in other productions.”

Drama club’s advisers said parents came to last month’s informational meeting to show their support, not to express concerns.

Although Mr. Gamberg acknowledges there will be varied opinions on the school’s decisions, he believes the majority of the community approves the school’s show choice.

The drama club believes Southold will be the first district on the East End to perform Rent, but stressed that was not the reason for choosing this play. “We read quite a few scripts over the summer and kept going back to “Rent,” Mr. Rooney said.

“It’s such a beautiful story and it’s a very moving show.”

Ms. Ellwood said this is one of the school’s largest musical productions, with about 48 actors and a dozen stage crew.

Ms. Baumann and Mr. Rooney said they were pleased to have so many students express an interest in the drama club.“The students are working so hard,” Ms. Baumann said. “Many of them came in during their February break.”

“It’s great to see these kids who we’ve mostly seen in athletics and other activities get up on stage,” Mr. Rooney added. “We definitely felt that we made the right choice.”

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on March 20-22 and 2 p.m. on March 23 in the high school auditorium. Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, and will be on sale at Southold Free Library beginning Monday. For more information, call 631-765-5081.

jennifer@timesreview.com