The theatre department at Texas Wesleyan University recently halted an upcoming production of the play, Down in Mississippi, after some students voiced opposition, concerned about the use of the N-word. Written by DG member Carlyle Brown, the play takes place in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and includes multiple uses of the slur, which the playwright has said was done for historical accuracy. Some students organized a petition for the play’s cancellation and voiced their concerns during an open meeting with the playwright and administrators, claiming the use of the slur would cause harm to Black students, amid other tensions related to race and diversity on campus. In response to this incident, the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF) and PEN America released the following statement:
“The decision to cancel this production because of some students’ objections is an alarming affront to artistic freedom. While students’ concerns about the use of the N-word in the play and the climate surrounding race and diversity on campus are understandable, the answer cannot be to shut down the opportunity to stage the playwright’s work about an important moment in history. At its finest, theatre aims to provoke its audience in the hope it will spur reflection and public dialogue. In that spirit, the idea of organizing a listening session was an appropriate channel for students’ frustrations. If still upset, students could have protested the play in other ways or chosen not to attend. Instead the theatre department has essentially silenced the playwright and exercised the equivalent of a veto over all the students and faculty involved, as well as all those who may have learned from or enjoyed the production.
Canceling on the cusp of performance is particularly disconcerting, and it elevates one view of this production to the exclusion of all others, foreclosing on the potential for any nuanced engagement with its unflinching subject matter. Especially at a moment when book bans around the country are targeting the work and stories of writers and artists of color, it is essential to defend the space for all creative expression. Unquestionably, the N-word has a menacing and debasing history and students’ concerns should be taken seriously–but blanket censorship of this kind ought never to be the solution to art that offends, provokes or is difficult.”
The DLDF has produced a useful toolkit to aid in the staging of theatre productions on campus.
The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund advocates and educates on behalf of the right of free speech on stages across America. Learn more at www.thedldf.org.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.