Yes, this is another Strange Tale of the Great Stupid.
A depressing one.
In the opening scene of Down in Mississippi by African American playwright Carlyle Brown, a white man calls a black character “nigger” multiple times and threatens him after learning that he’s in the area to help register black citizens to vote. Texas Wesleyan’s Black Student Association shared an Instagram post about how many students were “deeply disturbed” that such scenes would be shown on campus, because it might “hurt Black students and possibly students from other marginalized communities.”
So the university decided not to mount the production. Brown, the playwright, argued that the word’s use in the play was necessary to maintain historical accuracy and to provoke strong responses. Yes, and he might have also pointed out that this is live drama, and the objective of live drama is to arouse the audience’s emotions. Glenn O. Lewis, the first black board chairman the university has had, diplomatically said that he understood how the language could make some students uncomfortable, “But when have we ever … learned anything in our comfort zone?” Lewis asked. “You don’t learn anything new until you get out of your comfort zone, and I think that is what Mr. Brown intended for this play to do.” Lewis added that censorship of Brown’s work is not a real solution.
But the school censored the play anyway. It was easier to do that, you see, than to have to tell self-righteous students that they were wrong, that they don’t understand history, theater, drama or art, and that it is time to shut up and learn something. “These crucial conversations need to continue,” university officials said in a campus-wide weenie email after the production was killed. What’s the point? If the university won’t stand up for artistic expression that students find “triggering,” then all a discussion will do is reinforce self-righteous intolerance.
Here is the Ethics Alarms file on “nigger.”
Almost exactly 20 years ago, my theater company The American Century Theater produced a revival of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” using the George Aiken adaptation that was prominently produced on tours during the first half of the 20th century. I co-directed the play with my late friend Ed Bishop, who was black. The script had “nigger” spoken repeatedly, and several times in the first five minutes of the first act.
The show was viewed by more than our Arlington, Virginia company’s usual contingent of black audience members, with many students attending. Do you know how many of the black audience members, families and teens complained about “the N-Word”? None, and that’s over a month-long run. I asked many of them specifically, and they looked at me like I had three heads. Of course they weren’t offended, they said. How could you tell Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful story without using that word?
That was during the Bush administration. We have gone backwards in race relations and the understanding of the importance of unfettered speech and expression.
Good job, everybody.
Pointer: Res Ipsa Loquitur
15 thoughts on “For Some Strange Reason, The Playwright Didn’t Think “N-Word” Carried The Same Dramatic Punch..”
The Woke Paradox:
We must teach “real history” even if it might hurt the feelings of white kids.
We can’t teach “real history” if it will hurt the feelings of black kids.
When was the last time you heard about organized wokesters protesting the black female hating lyrics of rap music?
Lots of triggering there along with tremendous virtue signaling opportunity.
Get on that wokesters!
To paraphrase the most eminent Thomas Sowell: There are those that don’t lament that racism exists, but fear that it doesn’t. And they’ll do everything necessary to ensure racism flourishes. These are the ones that have been instrumental in ensuring race relations regression.
“It’s okay, kids. It’s just a work of fiction. That person isn’t a real racist; he’s an actor.”
What if they had a black student play the part? Could there be any objection?
I think–well, I hope–that this is a power play by the college’s Black Student Association to demonstrate relevance and influence. As tempting as it is to assume that humans really are so stupid as to get angry at a historically accurate play by an African American playwright showing the oppression people experienced that had such an impact on society all the way up to the present, I suspect the motivation is to see what demands they can make of white people. The administrators are cowards, so they capitulated to a ludicrous request. That indicates they’ll cave to bigger and more ridiculous requests, because they have no principles they’re willing to stand for.
OF COURSE it’s a power play, XF.
All the woke bullshit that ever existed and ever will exist is in the name of power. Look objectively at the behavior and at all the double-standards and self-contradictions. The only consistent thing underlying it all is the naked pursuit of power.
Perhaps so. However, doing things like this tips their hand. When they simply ask for things they don’t really care about, it’s probably because it makes it easier for them to ask for what they really want later. (Or they just want power for its own sake. I think that’s part of it but not all of it.)
When they ask for things they obviously don’t really care about, though, that not only risks getting called out, but it also harms the reputation of people who might have understandable reasons to ask for changes. The idea of people only being motivated by power and control can lead to dismissing someone who has a legitimate complaint (if occasionally an unreasonable suggestion for addressing it) instead of examining the issue and figuring out a constructive resolution.
I’d be impressed if someone stood up to this Black Student Association. I’d be still more impressed if they pointed out some actual problems that the Black Student Association could have been complaining about instead.
Apologies in advance for a long response…
The first comment on this post, by JutGory, is especially apt. But, as someone who taught college-level theatre courses for over forty years and continues to do some scholarly writing in the field, I’d like to take the analysis a little further.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I have directed two plays which contain the word “nigger.” Both, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Athol Fugard’s ”Master Harold”… and the boys, are widely anthologized and both are regarded as among the greatest works of 20th-century drama. The latter, which includes a particularly crude racist joke, is also unquestionably an anti-racist play, as Down in Mississippi appears to be (I confess I haven’t read it or seen it).
I was also asked by a recently-graduated black student a decade or so ago to play the role of a slave-owning plantation owner in a short film he had written and was directing. The character probably used the dreaded epithet at least a half dozen times in a four- or five-minute scene. I agreed to play the role, but for whatever reason the film shoot never happened.
My first question, unanswered by the linked article, is precisely who made the decision to cancel the performance. It certainly wasn’t the (black) playwright, who said that “maybe you should be less fragile. And try to listen to what your former generations are trying to teach you for the well good being of all of us,” and it’s unlikely to have been the theatre department, given that they were the ones who decided to produce the play to begin with.
Administrators above the level of department chair are almost never involved in the process of selecting a production season. But they will stick their noses into the process if there’s a potential controversy, even a fallacious one. We can reasonably surmise that it’s a dean, a vice president, or a president who is the Designated Weenie in this case.
It certainly wasn’t the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Glenn O. Lewis, himself a black man, who points out that censorship is not a solution, and that “you don’t learn anything new until you get out of your comfort zone, and I think that is what Mr. Brown intended for this play to do.”
The alleged concerns of the Black Student Association are, of course, nonsense. The offensive term is “triggering” precisely because it was used in common parlance by white people in the particular time and place depicted in the play. Had it not been, then two things would be different: 1) it wouldn’t appear in the play, and 2) it wouldn’t be literally the only word that apparently sends shock waves through audiences: other slurs—related to gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, and the like—and variations on what George Carlin called the “seven words you can’t say on television” all appear with some regularity in recent plays, with no appreciable dissent.
But the BSA thinks it necessary to prevent a black playwright’s work from being produced, and to deny black students production opportunities and résumé credits… because of the accurate use of a word used in a play about an important moment in American history, and especially in black American history.
But (and here’s where the theatre historian in me kicks in, and most readers will tune out) there are two moments in theatre history that strike me as relevant here. First is the response of the French Academy to Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid in the 1630s. They enumerated a lot of problems with Corneille’s play, but the one that stands out in my mind at the moment is that the Infanta (princess) is madly in love with the title character, although he is beneath her station.
The play is based on actual events, and the real-life Infanta was indeed infatuated with Don Rodrigue. But the greatest minds Cardinal Richelieu could assemble (or at least the greatest minds who agreed with him…) declared that the mere fact that something happened did not make it plausible that it could have happened. Similarly, apparently, the fact that real-life bigots used racial slurs over half a century ago is insufficient reason for them to do so in a play about that period.
The other moment is Plato’s banning poets (which included playwrights) from his Republic, because they represented as true things which weren’t real at all. That guy on stage wasn’t really the king of Thebes, that actor wasn’t really killed, and so on. We can forgive Plato for not understanding the concept that was subsequently called “aesthetic distance,” the idea that allows us not to run for cover when a gun-wielding bad guy appears on the stage or to be surprised when the actor playing Hamlet comes out for curtain call.
Today, however, there’s no excuse. I used to spend a fair amount of time early on in a freshman-level Play Analysis course discussing the difference between the “actual” (that’s your friend Robert on stage) and the “real” (within the world of the play, he’s Hamlet). Allowing one of these worlds to bleed too much into the other hinders our understanding of the “true,” the insights into what is often referred to as the human condition offered by the play in text and/or performance.
Surely, as EC supposes, the members of the BSA know better. Surely, as board chairman Lewis declares, censorship is no way to run a theatre season or, indeed, a university. Mr. Lewis is also correct about the value of discomfort. That such a voice of reason, coming from someone in his position, would be ignored is a particularly damning indictment of the Texas Wesleyan administration.
Interesting that “Cat” was one of the dramas, since Williams had to use the silly word “fug” because “fuck’ was banned. “Fug” is to N-Word as “Fuck” is to “nigger.” I assume you kept “fug,” though it drives me crazy and pulls me right out of that play every time it’s uttered. Or does the Williams estate now allow “fuck”?
Great comment, as usual, and I’ll have it up as the COTD.
I don’t recall the play having either “fuck” or “fug.” I do remember “poontang.” It was 20-something years ago, so I may just be a little forgetful.
Oh-oh. I know Norman Mailer had to use “fug”, but I also know I saw at least one “Cat” where fug was used. There are several versions of that show, as you know. When I have time, I’ll research it.
Jack, perhaps you can add some paragraph breaks when doing so.
Paragraph breaks are everyone’s friend…
I do. When I remember.
I meant for when you post Curmie’s COTD. He should have done it originally.
I find it difficult to wade through a long wall of words without paragraph breaks and frequently just give up regardless of how good the content might be.
Yeah, my bad. When my comment is likely to be a little long, I often type it out into Word and then copy and paste. I have Word configured to add in paragraph breaks, so it looked fine there. But they don’t appear in the transfer. Usually, I remember to add them; this time, I didn’t.