The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which represents 59 education, publishing, religious, and arts organizations, has joined the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund and PEN America to call attention to the cancellation of plays at two universities following protests over their content. The groups have released the following statement:
Colleges and universities should be places to explore and learn from challenging ideas, histories, and artworks. Yet, well-meaning students are calling for the suppression of art and performance, all in service of the misguided idea that the very presence of an offensive word or image within a work causes damage, regardless of context. Targets include WPA-era paintings and contemporary theatre productions illustrating histories of oppression.
Within two weeks this Fall, two university theatre productions were canceled by their program directors because of student objections to slurs used in the scripts, each of which explore specific eras of discrimination in US history: one on the lavender scare, one on the civil rights era.
At Texas Wesleyan University, Carlyle Brown’s Down in Mississippi was called off after students petitioned against the production, claiming its use of racial slurs was harmful. The play—penned by Brown, an accomplished Black playwright—tells the story of students who traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to register Black citizens to vote. To make tangible the dehumanizing treatment faced by Black Americans during this era, the script employs racial slurs in eleven instances.
At Quinnipiac University, the student-run Fourth Wall Theater ceased production of Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, because members of the cast were uncomfortable with language used in a particular scene and refused to participate. Within the context of a play, written by a gay playwright, about the hatred experienced by LGBTQ communities in the 1950s, the use of homophobic slurs is integral to the work. Nonetheless, the discomfort of student actors led to the project’s abandonment, in favor of Alice in Wonderland.
The normalized racism and homophobia of the time periods examined in these canceled productions may indeed be painful to represent on stage. However, if actors refused to represent characters whose beliefs or words they find appaling, theatre, television, and film as we know it would disappear in favor of feel-good entertainment. We cannot have Angels in America without Roy Cohn, Othello without Iago, or The Downfall without Hitler.
Student knowledge and perceptions must be taken into account in the design of both curricular and extracurricular activities. But sanitized alternatives—or worse—the convenient omission of thoughtful, nuanced works of historical fiction, do a disservice to very real and terrifying circumstances experienced by marginalized communities throughout American history.
While it was the protests of students that shut down these plays, the institutions that support these theatre programs also bear responsibility for the cancellations. Students enroll in higher education to learn under the guidance of field professionals. It is the role of colleges to provide students educational resources to help them ask important questions and encounter the difficult lessons of history. In the case of theatre, this can take the form of accompanying discussion groups, a lecture series, or workshops to offer historical context and examine the implications of censoring controversial or offensive material. If our colleges and universities are unwilling or unable to take the lead, how will graduates learn to address these issues after they earn their diplomas?
Without better leadership, our cultural field will be practically forbidden from earnest examinations of history, and marginalized voices will continue to be silenced from exposing the trying circumstances faced by their communities.
Since its inception in 1974, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has functioned as a first responder in protecting freedom of expression, a fundamental human right and a keystone of democracy. Representing 59 trusted education, publishing, and arts organizations, NCAC encourages and facilitates dialogue between diverse voices and perspectives, including those that have historically been silenced.
The Dramatists Guild, founded in 1919, created the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund to advocate and to educate, and to provide the public with a new resource in defense of the First Amendment, fair copyright laws, and a robust public domain. In light of dwindling public funding for the arts, the DLDF advocates not only for dramatists, but for theatres and other theatre artists (as well as audiences, schools, students, and the culture at large), all of whom are confronting censorship and other issues of public import related to the dramatic arts. Download the DLDF's toolkit for Producing Stage Works on College Campuses in Turbulent Times here.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Founded in 1922, PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.