Oklahoma State theater professor says her department censored a play dealing with gender identity for fear donors would object.

February 22, 2016

A play written and set to be performed by Oklahoma State University theater students was scuttled in the early planning stages, their professor says, after the department learned it would deal with gender and transgender issues. The university denies censorship but acknowledges that it blocked the play from being performed as planned and allowed it only to be produced in a less prominent setting.

"Everyone [the professor and her students] was told, that’s inappropriate. To me, that’s an infringement on my academic freedom,” said Jodi Jinks, assistant professor of acting at Oklahoma State and a member of Rude Mechs, an Austin, Tex., theater company. “And in terms of the students, their freedom of speech was infringed upon because of fear that we would offend donors of the theater department.”

Jinks said she began working with her students in the fall semester on an original play “deconstructing” Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House, which was itself controversial in the late 19th century for its critical depiction of gender and marriage norms. Her students decided to attack the question “does gender really matter,” she said, but in a sillier, spoofy way.

Jinks brought very rough drafts of three scenes to an early production meeting, and the next day, she said, received a call from the department head, Andrew Kimbrough, who she said told her, “We can’t do this show as it’s going.”

He explained, Jinks said, that “you’ve got to make a play with our audience in mind,” which in Oklahoma State's case is “over 50, white and conservative, he said.”

Kimbrough declined to comment

But in a statement to the student newspaper, confirmed by Inside Higher Ed, he said, “When the work was presented to the production team, we saw that in the slate of scenes that were to be presented, we were not seeing an exploration of relationships …. Instead, what we were seeing was an exploration of gender identity and gender politics.”

“Even though they were moving in a new direction, they were never asked to abandon the topic but simply to proceed from the vantage of mid-October with our current audience in mind,” Kimbrough said. “And I believe when you’re running a business, this is the No. 1 rule. You must create work that has your audience in mind.”

“This was a difference of opinion as to whether the play to be presented was the play that was proposed to the season selection committee,” said Gary Shutt, director of communications for Oklahoma State. “The department felt that it was not and decided to move the play from the main stage to another stage and time. A final version of the play was presented in a public forum. So the faculty member and students had an opportunity to present their work.”

Jinks said she disagrees that the play had been misrepresented, and that the opportunity to perform it elsewhere, without technical support or advertising, still amounted to censorship.

Kimbrough gave her and her students the option of modifying the play to make it more accessible or perform it as they planned in another venue, Jinks said. “They decided we’re going to say what we want to say and not be censored.”

The three scenes she brought to that meeting, which Jinks emphasized were in their very early stages, involved a GI Joe doll expressing discomfort with masculinity, a Barbie doll wishing her heels and physical dimensions didn’t impede her athleticism, and two characters from the original Ibsen play discussing longing for men, feeling like a woman, and God.

The play, titled The Politics of Dancing! after the 1983 pop song of the same name (with the lyrics, "We got the message/I heard it on the airwaves/The politicians/Are now DJs"), was originally set to appear on the university’s main stage last weekend. Instead, the class performed it under a new title, This Title Has Been Censored, as a workshop during finals week.

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