Texas Wesleyan Cancels Play After Students Say Use of Slur Is Harmful [The writer of the play is black]

https://web.archive.org/web/20221006141216/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/us/texas-wesleyan-play-racism.html

Texas Wesleyan Cancels Play After Students Say Use of Slur Is Harmful

The play’s author, who is Black, said he crafted its language to be historically accurate in representing civil rights struggles. But the theater program at the university heeded the call of students.

By April Rubin

October 6, 2022

Texas Wesleyan University halted its production of “Down In Mississippi,” a play about registering voters in the 1960s, after criticism from students who said racist epithets in the script could contribute to a hostile, unwelcoming environment. Its author said he was using that language to represent the reality of the period.

The play by Carlyle Brown, a Black playwright based in Minneapolis, focuses on the efforts of a movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed racial discrimination and protected Black voters. The plot, which is set during the Freedom Summer campaign, centers on three student activists as they travel from New York City to the South to register Black voters.

In telling that story, the playwright included a scene in which a white character used a racial slur, repeatedly, to refer to Black people, opening up a controversy on campus that also spotlighted a larger rift in American society over discussions of race and the portrayal of the struggles of people of color in media and the arts.

Two students who were not part of the production, and were described as a Latinx woman and a Black woman, heard about the scene through word of mouth and submitted bias reports to the university’s administration on Sept. 23, said Chatashia Brown, the university’s assistant director for student diversity and inclusion programs.

Their complaints prompted administrators of the university, in Fort Worth, to host a “listening session” on Sept. 29, which had been previously scheduled as the opening night of the play. Students, actors and members of the university’s faculty and staff joined the open forum, as did Mr. Brown.

Black students said that the explicit language in the play would further aggravate problems on a campus that they said did not cater to the needs of its significant population of students of color. As of fall 2021, 58 percent of students at Texas Wesleyan identified as Asian, Black, Latino or biracial.

“They wanted to kind of come in and be able to see the story and understand its impact without being triggered by it,” Ms. Brown said.

The students who expressed their concerns said that the repetition of the racial slur, spoken about a dozen times in the play, would have caught them off guard and negatively affected their mental health. They worried that the play could lead other students who are not Black to feel more comfortable repeating the slur.

“We pretty much all understand what harmful language is and how it’s been used because a lot of them still deal with that today,” Ms. Brown said. “So they just thought the timing and the place of it was pretty upsetting.”

The playwright said that his intentions were for the performance to be historically accurate. To him, the past shouldn’t be sanitized — and he said that the racial slur was used provocatively, for audience members to feel the impact it has had in real life. The scene portrays one of the play’s three students, who is white, showing the Black student how he would be treated on their journey. Training sessions like the one portrayed were common at the time and were intended to help people understand the severity of the behavior they could face.

Mr. Brown, who joined the listening session on a video call, said the play seems to have become a catalyst for a discussion about racial relations on campus that is separate from his work

“As the conversation went on, a couple students went up and looked at my image on the screen and said, ‘It’s not your play, Mr. Brown; it’s just not the play at this place, at this time,’” he said in an interview.

Last school year, the president of the Black Student Association went on a hunger strike to raise awareness of the lack of diversity on Texas Wesleyan’s campus. Among the sources of her discontent: The university didn’t have substantial classes focused on ethnic or racial studies, despite having a diverse student body; and no established multicultural center existed for students to convene.

The protest, along with other feedback from students about concerns with the campus climate and diversity, prompted the university to announce earlier this year that it would emphasize “community, engagement and inclusion” through a strategic plan, which included measures such as incorporating multiculturalism, inclusion and anti-intolerance in its curriculum; engaging in culturally relevant teaching to connect with students of diverse backgrounds; and identifying a space on campus for multicultural student programs.

However, the discussions around the play showed that students’ grievances had not been addressed to the extent they wanted, said Jaylon Leonard, president of the student body.

“It was not the play itself, but about some things that we had dealt with in the past with the school in regard to diversity and inclusion recently that weren’t unanswered,” he said, adding that “for this to be thrown on top of those issues, it was something that we were not ready to accept.”

Production dates for “Down in Mississippi” were first delayed, and the theater program considered hosting the play off campus at the Jubilee Theatre, a Fort Worth venue that puts on plays that highlight African American experiences. But the faculty of the Texas Wesleyan theater department decided not to put on the play at all, after students involved expressed their discomfort, said Joe Brown, theater chair and professor of theater arts.

The theater program has produced plays about the Holocaust, the gay rights movement, religion and political extremism, and they have been well-regarded in the campus community, Professor Brown said. All of the upcoming plays this season will examine the theme of exclusion.

“Our motivation was what’s happening in the United States right now is pretty scary with women’s rights and L.G.B.T.Q. rights and voter suppression and Black rights,” he said. “There’s some scary things happening in different states, so we felt the timeliness of ‘Is history repeating itself?’”

Students in the play sought the guidance of D. Wambui Richardson, the artistic director of the Jubilee Theatre, early in the production process, since he has put on several other plays with similar themes. He has heard the critique that the approach of a play could be glorifying negative aspects of the Black experience, citing an act on police brutality as an example, Mr. Richardson said.

“Our response was if we’re not creating a space for the conversations to be had in a safe and nurturing environment, then those conversations are not being had,” he said.

He offered for the production of “Down In Mississippi” to be moved to his theater, but Mr. Richardson came to understand that the Fort Worth student community did not seem ready for it.

“A message is only as important and vital as the lips that will repeat it, the ears that will hear it and the legs that will carry it,” Mr. Richardson said.

As the only Black person on the production team, Mya Cockrell, who was responsible for the scenic design, had reservations but felt that she had to come to terms with a show that was moving forward.

She appreciated that members of the cast went out and spoke with people involved in the civil rights movement and learned about the history, but she said that the greater campus community would have benefited from that discussion.

“I personally don’t think that the theater was in a place to put on a show like this,” Ms. Cockrell said, “because I think there’s a lot more that we can do as a community to help people, and I don’t think we were necessarily doing that or educating people outside of the theater.”

October 7, 2022. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Cancel culture, Dumbing down, Education, Racism, Social justice warriors.

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