Education Lab

Clovis Unified cancels Buchanan High play because of gay main character, student director says

Buchanan student Jada Sylvest created these buttons for students on Monday to demand the return of the school’s rendition of the play, “No Exit.”
Buchanan student Jada Sylvest created these buttons for students on Monday to demand the return of the school’s rendition of the play, “No Exit.” Contributed

Thousands have signed a petition demanding that Clovis Unified School District reinstate the production of a play at Buchanan High that students say was abruptly canceled because a main character is gay.

The petition on states, “The reason we were given for the cancellation was something along the lines of there’s a lesbian character and some parents may have to explain to their child that some women love other women. That our audience doesn’t approve of homosexuality, and we should be playing to our audience.”

The production was of “No Exit,” written in the 1940s by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. The play features a lesbian postal clerk who turns a woman against her husband.

Clovis Unified contends the play was not canceled because of its gay character, but because of sexual themes and other mature content, pointing out that it is read in advanced placement courses meant for the college level. “No Exit” is set in hell, and discusses murder, infidelity and torture.

“We own the fact that it should never have even been approved as a senior production in the first place. Being a K-12 institution, the expectation of our drama programs is that every production they do is to be age-appropriate content,” CUSD spokeswoman Kelly Avants said Monday.

“We have done multiple other shows at the high school level that includes lesbian, gay or questioning characters. We would never think that that was reason to cancel a play, and certainly not after the play’s already going.”

Buchanan High student Jared Serpa, who directed the play, says in a video posted to Twitter on Friday that school administrators shut down the play because of an audience complaint, saying the gay character could force parents to have uncomfortable conversations with their children.

“No. That just shows how cowardice the parent is for not talking to their child about reality and telling them that the world that they live in isn’t perfectly heterosexual like they want it to be,” Serpa says in the video. “Talk with your children about reality. Don’t put them in this bubble and darkness … because you couldn’t find the courage to talk to your own child about the fact that people are different.”

Serpa said that an administrator told him that there were multiple problems with the show, but “the lesbian thing” was the central issue. “The other arguments were really weak,” Serpa said.

Seventeen-year-old Jada Sylvest made rainbow-colored buttons that read “bring back No Exit” and distributed them to students at Buchanan High on Monday.

“Here in Clovis Unified, apparently having a few scenes in which two women flirt and look into each other’s eyes is too much. Put simply, here in Clovis Unified, apparently being different is too much,” Sylvest said. “This is homophobia and discrimination, and worse yet, this is CUSD and Buchanan High saying that it’s OK.”

This is not the first time Clovis Unified has been accused of being discriminatory to the LGBT community. In 2016, the district made national headlines for refusing to update its dress code despite concerns the policy violated gender-rights laws. The school board later voted to make the dress code gender neutral.

Student Cecila Fisher played the male lead in “No Exit,” and said the show was canceled in part because she played a traditionally male role, and made the character androgynous. Fisher is part of the LGBT+ community.

“CUSD prides itself in its acceptance, but I’ve never actually felt accepted,” Fisher said.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, nearly 2,900 people had signed the “No Exit” petition.

Another crowdfunding site is aiming to raise $1,000 so the students can host the play off campus. By 4 p.m. Monday, $1,031 (toward a goal of $1,000) had been pledged on the website

Michele Ellis Pracy, the director of the Fresno Art Museum, said the museum has offered to stage the play in its Bonner Auditorium. No decision has yet been made on that offer.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays