Student Performance Stirs Emotions

Three students at a Seattle arts college cause a controversy with their clowning portrayal of the civil rights movement.
May 5, 2006

It was not a public performance -- a few dozen students and faculty were the only ones to witness the final presentation of three theater majors at Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle. But that hasn’t stopped the nature of the performance from becoming the center of a campuswide controversy that has prompted calls from some students for immediate administrative action.

The presentation, which took place March 31, was part of a theater course in which students are asked to perform in clown character. The assignment called on students to portray a historical event. One group, made up of two white men and one white woman, chose to focus on the civil rights movement.

According to Annika Keller, a senior theater major who saw the performance, the actors showed “a dimwitted” Martin Luther King Jr. forgetting his “I Have a Dream” speech and then being shot by another character. In a portrayal of the Greensboro student sit-ins, the performers, playing black students, ordered food such as fried chicken and chitlins, Keller said.

“At that point, nobody was with them anymore,” Keller said. “It had nothing to do with the civil rights movement. It was a blatant stereotypical observation.

“Their intention, as I understand it, was to show ignorance on the part of white people in general about this particular event,” Keller added. “In doing that, they displayed their own ignorance. They had no idea of what they were getting into.”

A few people in the audience walked out of the performance. Provost Lois Harris, who was not at the performance, said she heard about the content shortly after the class ended. “Everyone was mortified and embarrassed,” she said.

In the aftermath, a group of students who witnessed the show started a group, “Students to Promote Understanding and Respect.” They met with Cornish administrators, including Harris, and the three student performers.

At one of the meetings, Harris said that the instructor had told her that, in retrospect, he should have stopped the performance. The performers could not be reached for comment for this article.

“This was a really ignorant, stupid thing,” Harris said she told the performers. “There was no malicious intent, though. It wasn’t a hate crime.”

Cornish administrators decided not to suspend the students, who are scheduled to graduate this month. “These kids had finished four years. We aren’t gong to keep them from graduating based on bad judgment," Harris said. “They’ve been through public censure and humiliation. The best punishment is having to deal with it and change your ways.”

One of the performers sent the theater department a public letter of apology, said Tinu Oyelowo, a senior theater major who attended the performance and attended the initial meeting with Harris and the performers. She said she would like to see letters from the other two students, as well as a curricular change to include diversity training for students, faculty members and administrators.

 “This is an opportunity for administrators to implement changes and ask for a greater response from the community,” Oyelowo said. “I have to look at people who are in charge of the situation and demand change. They keep saying it takes time. What’s happening now?”

Harris wrote a letter distributed across the Cornish campus explaining the events and how the college plans to respond. An outside organization that leads diversity discussions came to campus after the presentation. Harris said the university is looking at ways to make the campus more diverse and at methods to discuss relevant topics. The college of about 770 full-time students enrolls about 2.5 percent black students and 16 percent non-white students, Harris said.


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