Played Out

San Bernardino Valley College calls off a play about the December terrorist attack on a local public facility after receiving complaints about subject matter.

August 1, 2016
Scene from a 2008 staging of 'The Laramie Project'

San Bernardino Valley College has halted production on a play based on December’s terrorist attack in that city. The announcement came late last week, after some of the victims’ family members objected to the concept.

“Please accept our deepest apologies for any pain or hurt we may have caused during the planning stages of launching a fall production called SB Strong,” Diana Z. Rodriguez, college president, wrote in a letter to San Bernardino County residents first obtained by The Sun. “Our faculty are very sympathetic to the sensitive nature of their work and are considering a new theme for our fall production. We will not be doing SB Strong.”

Rodriguez said that “wider community input” will be sought if such a project is considered in the future, to ensure that the victims of the attack at the Inland Regional Center aren’t dishonored or misrepresented. At the same time, she said that academic freedom was not abridged in the decision to pull the play.

“Although we encourage originality on the part of our faculty and cannot censor their academic work, we also highly value the community’s input into the work we do,” she wrote. “We strive to be an institution that excels in bridging cultural gaps and providing improved access to rewarding careers and professional opportunities. We could never seek to exacerbate the profound grief with which our community still lives.”

Melinda Fogle-Oliver, the instructor of theater arts in charge of the play, did not respond to requests for comment.

Matie Manning Scully, chair of performing arts at the college, said she did not believe the play’s cancellation raised concerns about academic freedom, although it was to have been part of Fogle-Oliver’s fall play production class.

“It’s my understanding that [Fogle-Oliver] decided this on her own,” Scully said. “She’s a very tenderhearted woman to get this sort of negative response, I think she came to this decision on her own.”

Last Monday, a local newspaper ran a story about Fogle-Oliver’s plan to produce a “devised” play about the San Bernardino shootings, in which an ensemble cast would research and conduct interviews with local residents about their responses to the attack to create an original play. Later in the week, some people in the area, including family members of victims, voiced their concerns about the idea to college officials. Some said they wanted to see a script before the project moved ahead, others said it was simply too soon, and others still said it was poor judgment to dramatize the event at all.

“As the father of one of the 14 people killed, I am aghast at the suggestion that you’d want to profit from Daniel’s death,” Mark Sandefur wrote in a letter to the college, according to The Sun, referring to his late son, Daniel Kaufman. “What incredibly bad taste you show. I can’t imagine who thought this was a good idea.”

Because there was script, no one was citing anything specific about the play except its concept.

Pavel Bratulin, spokesperson for the college, said via email that faculty members had received concerns “sent directly to them that the production would lack support from many family members and friends of victims.”

Since this was “one of the key voices the faculty wanted to hear from and involve in the production, they decided not to move forward with it this semester,” Bratulin said. “The decision was made by faculty out of consideration for the families of victims who shared their concerns. Our academic freedom policy encourages independence of thought and originality, so the decision could have only been made at the faculty level.”

Staging plays about tragedies is certainly not without precedent. Anne Nelson’s play The Guys opened Off Broadway to much acclaim just a few months after Sept. 11, for example. Numerous other plays have covered the tragedy since.

Scully, the department chair, said works based on tragedies, such as The Laramie Project, a widely staged documentary-style play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, can help communities heal.

“That’s exactly the kind of play that could have come about here,” Scully said, “with people voicing their opinions and reactions to what happened. I think it’s very logical that we would be dealing with this because it happened here in San Bernardino. … We did a memorial service here right on campus because we’re trying to help the city heal and make an appropriate response to a tragedy that happened right there in our backyard.”


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