Confession: before I wrote the post that Curmie fashioned into his Comment of the Day, I emailed him the underlying story in advance, given his unofficial position as the Ethics Alarms dramaturg. I almost asked him to write a guest post on the head-exploding tale of a university banning a black playwright’s work about the civil rights movement because it has white characters using the word “nigger,” but I guessed, fortunately correctly, that he would provide a Comment of the Day on the topic whatever I wrote.
And do he did, very well indeed.
Here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on “For Some Strange Reason, The Playwright Didn’t Think ‘N-Word’ Carried The Same Dramatic Punch…“
The first comment on this post, by JutGory, is especially apt. [ JutGory wrote: “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.”]
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 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 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.