How a High School Production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Erupted Into an Ugly Culture War

An upcoming high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar has ripped a North Carolina town apart, with critics blasting it for peddling a so-called LGBTQ+ agenda—and students countering that their outrage is just the tip of an anti-trans, homophobic iceberg.According to students at Central Academy of Technology and Arts, a magnet school in Monroe, a

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An upcoming high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar has ripped a North Carolina town apart, with critics blasting it for peddling a so-called LGBTQ+ agenda—and students countering that their outrage is just the tip of an anti-trans, homophobic iceberg.

According to students at Central Academy of Technology and Arts, a magnet school in Monroe, a gender-neutral production of Jesus Christ Superstar was announced over the summer. An Instagram page for the school’s theater program advertised the rock opera with the official logo of Jesus Christ Superstar, the profile of two angels in the shape of a horseshoe, taken from its 1970 album release.

“2023 CATA Musical Reveal,” read the since-deleted post that was later reshared on a Union County community gossip page. “We have officially received the rights to produce an all-gender cast [Jesus Christ Superstar] where anyone can play any role.”

Students told The Daily Beast that the high school put up another post in September that announced auditions and used the Jesus Christ Superstar logo superimposed over CATA’s initials, which looked similar to the Progress Pride flag. The letters were in a rainbow colorblock design and transitioned into white, baby pink and blue, brown, and black.

“Congratulations to everyone who submitted an audition,” the post, also since deleted, read. “We are incredibly proud of you and very much enjoyed watching your songs and dance videos. Thank you all for the time you put into these auditions.”

On Sept. 25, after the initial round of auditions, the account posted a callback list for shortlisted students. The gender or sex of the role did not determine which student would get the part.

Ordinarily, the production would likely have hit the stage without a hiccup. CATA has a nationally renowned arts program and a “thriving theatre and arts community,” Union County Public Schools assistant superintendent of communications and community relations Tahira Stalberte told The Daily Beast.

During the 2021-22 school year, students performed Heathers: The Musical, a play about teenage self-discovery that focuses on the need to fit in with the popular crowd, rebellion, bullying, and even suicide. CATA won regional awards for its production and, according to students, there were never any complaints despite the musical’s dark content.

Jesus Christ Superstar, an opera that demands a wide range of vocal abilities, is a modern rendition of the story of Jesus’ last week before his crucifixion that incorporates rock songs to serve as allegories for the current social climate. Multiple productions around the world have utilized nonbinary casting.

But what students didn’t count on was the involvement of Moms for Liberty, an ultra-conservative national organization that has pushed book bans, attacked teachers from diverse backgrounds, and fought face mask and vaccine mandates under the guise of “parental rights.”

Members from the Union County chapter of Moms for Liberty were quick to voice their horror at the gender-diverse casting and the fact the school’s logo had been colored rainbow and was being used to advertise the show.

“CATA mom here,” a parent posted in the chapter’s private Facebook group, according to screenshots provided to The Daily Beast by another person in the group. “I’ve been quiet long enough. I’m struggling with this new logo and this year’s play featuring a ‘gender inclusive’ cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. WHY? I’ve emailed… my concerns. If you feel led, please do so too. There is power in numbers!”

“So a girl can play Jesus and a boy can play Mary?! Heck. To. The. No!!!” another member of the Moms for Liberty Facebook group commented. “This is beyond disappointing. Union County parents need to speak out about this BS, even if their children aren’t directly impacted.”

In screenshots reviewed by The Daily Beast, Union County Public Schools board member Gary Sides, also a member of the group, responded that the situation would be handled.

“Update, it IS BEING handled,” he later wrote.

Central Academy of Technology and Arts

According to multiple students who spoke to The Daily Beast, that’s when the issue spiraled into an ugly campaign against LGBTQ+ community members—spearheaded by district administrators.

“When I originally saw that we were doing gender-neutral casting [for Jesus Christ Superstar], I was excited about the opportunity,” CATA Medical Academy 12th grade student Evie Fraker told The Daily Beast. “[Now,] it feels like CATA and Union County as a whole are taking a huge step backward in terms of inclusivity and making every student and staff member feel safe.”

On Sept. 27, CATA principal Kevin Beals sent a letter to staff members reminding them that the use of pronouns in emails and any classroom “displays” of support for marginalized communities were banned.

“[W]e have been asked to remind all staff members that our classrooms and professional social media accounts must remain free from any content that could be discriminatory or viewed as promoting some individual, group or agenda,” Beals wrote in a letter to staff. “We have been asked to demonstrate neutrality in all posts, displays, and lessons.”

He continued: “We have been told that the inclusion and use of pronouns in staff email signatures and classrooms is not permissible, and that they should be removed from [district]-owned accounts.”

“Furthermore,” Beals added, “any displays or ‘concepts that could reasonably give rise to the appearance of sponsorship, approval, or endorsement’ should be removed from classrooms. This is all part of what the district views as professional standards, with neutrality being the key.”

Stalberte told The Daily Beast the theater group’s Instagram post with the rainbow logo wasn’t approved and included “inappropriate” additions to the school’s official logo.

In a statement, she added that employees have been expected to abide by district email standards for more than a decade, which include font color, style, and size; an educator’s title; location; and phone, fax, and cell numbers. The standards cannot be altered “in any way,” and nothing associated with religion, politics, or “personal philosophies” should be included.

Stalberte insisted the district school board did not discriminate against students in accordance with Title IX.

Their ‘neutral’ stance is just a way of pushing their ideals onto the school system.

CATA junior Brody Martin

Still, students felt the timing of the school board’s decision to double down on those policies was suspicious, coming right after Sides’ involvement.

“Students [did] not notice this policy being enforced until the controversy stemming from our musical—after the drama was incited on the Facebook group,” CATA junior Brody Martin told The Daily Beast in an email. “Basically, their ‘neutral’ stance is just a way of pushing their ideals onto the school system, and it could potentially be damaging to those currently in the closet or those who don’t have familial support.”

“One amazing thing about this show is the fact that it’s completely gender non-discriminatory. Yet teachers and admin are receiving backlash for this,” 11th grade student Gabby Laatz said in an email to The Daily Beast. “It’s difficult to watch as a queer student. In regards to the statement of neutrality, I feel like they are telling me my identity is not professional.”

Another student, ninth-grader Blake Hudson, told The Daily Beast that teachers had previously been advocates when it came to her own process of self-discovery, and they had helped champion her emotional well-being. But with the interference of district officials, she was afraid other students may not be able to have the same life-changing teacher-student relationships.

“For me, it’s like students need to have help finding their voice and need people to look up to,” Hudson said. “I went to the school counselor, I went to my teacher, and they helped me find my voice.”

Sides did not return The Daily Beast’s request for comment, nor did the Union County chapter of Moms for Liberty. Stalberte, the district spokesperson, said, “If students have concerns or anything, we certainly encourage them to talk with their principal or counselors, but they are truly supported.”

As the row intensified, community members started an online petition demanding the district be held accountable for discriminating against students based on their gender. It accused the board of demanding “neutrality” only when it suited their agenda, not when it came to their own members espousing religious events like campus Bible studies.

“What should be an incredible opportunity for ALL students to participate in musical triumph and development has, instead, turned into a culture war now [a]ffecting all teachers in the district,” the petition read.

“A small band of ‘concerned parents’ (to be noted, none of whom have children involved in the musical nor in this particular arts program) from extremist national organization Moms for Liberty reached out to board members to decry the choice to have a gender-neutral casting of this play.”

The petitioners demanded that board members not overstep their duties with specific schools, that policies concerning education about gender and identity be overturned, that the Pride flag not be considered an offensive or political symbol, and that the school board attend a Title IX education course.

“We know that there should be no limits on what our youth can accomplish, especially arbitrary ones. We know that everyone in our community deserves to feel safe and supported so that we all may achieve our greatest potential,” the petition ended.

For many residents, the episode just scratched the surface of deeper issues, as Union County is no stranger to the censorship of LGBTQ+ communities. During Pride events in June, a drag queen story hour was canceled after the organizer and his family received threats, according to CBS 17 Raleigh. WSOC-TV 9 reported that a public library also backed out of Pride events. In August, a local restaurant held a drag show that drew protesters vowing to “keep these demons away from our children,” Fox 8 Greensboro reported.

“I hope that the school board realizes that neutrality isn’t an option to create safe environments and the real answer should be inclusivity!” Laatz said in an email. “I feel all they are doing is punishing teachers for wanting to make their students feel safe and welcome in order to push THEIR agenda.”

But despite the seemingly ongoing setbacks, Union County Public Schools said CATA’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar will not be canceled.

The cast list of the show, which will premier in March 2023, was posted Saturday. Jesus will be played by a male and female student.

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