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Calling Off a Classic

Knox College pulls the plug on a planned production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan over concerns about race.

November 10, 2017
 

Knox College in Illinois this week canceled a planned production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, based on student protests that it is racially insensitive. But unlike some faculty members involved in parallel controversies elsewhere, theater professors at Knox blame themselves for not properly framing the play for students, rather than students for being unwilling to deal with uncomfortable speech and ideas.

‘The Teaching Moment Was Lost’

“Given the level of emotion at the moment, we felt that the teaching moment was lost, and that we’d move toward creating a teaching envelope around these kinds of issues,” said Elizabeth Carlin-Metz, Smith V. Brand Endowed Chair in Theater Arts at Knox. “How do you prepare the students to engage with difficult texts, and basically lay the groundwork for addressing a play that is from a time when there were other standards -- standards which today we would find sexist or racist or any of those things. And how do we not eliminate our history?”

Brecht, an antifascist, anticapitalist German, fled his country upon the rise of Adolf Hitler and finished Szechwan while in exile in the U.S., in 1941. Rather than a study of China -- of which Brecht knew very little -- the play uses the country as an otherworldly backdrop against which to explore issues including morality, greed, commodification and love. The story itself follows Shen Te, a young prostitute who is treated so poorly by fellow townspeople that she invents a male alter ego to protect herself. Can a person be good in a world that isn’t, the play ultimately demands -- even a group of god figures want to know.

Brecht is considered a major figure in 20th-century literature, and this and other plays of his are regularly taught at colleges and universities.

Opposition to Brecht’s play -- first from theater students and then from others -- began months ago, when the theater department announced its decision to stage it during the winter term. Some had previously read Szechwan in a theater class and remained uncomfortable with its portrayal of Asians and Asian women in particular; the play is by design indifferent to its own setting, the characters all have stereotypical-sounding names and the main character is a prostitute.

A number of students also said they worried that a preliminary plan to adjust the setting of the play to Europe was a way to get around finding people of color to fill East Asian roles on a heavily white campus. (The play’s director, Neil Blackadder, professor of theater, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the controversy or why he’d considered changing the setting to Europe.)

Those concerns peaked during a student-faculty forum on the matter earlier this month. Knox's student newspaper backed the protesters in an editorial published on the same day as the forum. The editorial board said, in part, that “The theater department is a very white department -- like many departments at Knox -- and it needs to acknowledge that they are coming from a place of privilege and prejudice. They need to listen to their students when they voice their concerns about not only the plays the department produces, but interactions with insensitive faculty and problematic syllabi.” (The editorial noted that the theater department in 2015 had staged another “outdated” play, Pierre de Marivaux’s The Island of Slaves. Written in 1725, the one-act comedy depicts what happens to a small group of slave owners and slaves after a shipwreck -- namely that roles become reversed, and then reversed again.)

Beyond more communication and sensitivity, the editorial board suggested that theater and other departments at Knox “need to engage in planned periods and workshops of interactive dialogues with their students.”

Carlin-Metz, the theater chair, said the department plans to have those kinds of discussions with students and that it’s confident it will eventually be able to stage Szechwan. But the department decided -- with no external pressure -- that now isn’t the right time, she said.

Asked if there were any hard feelings, Carlin-Metz said, “Did we have moments of defensiveness? Sure. But that’s not going to get us anywhere … I’m old enough to have been around in the ’60s and ’70s, when I was equally unwilling to listen to grown-ups with their heads up a particular nether region.”

‘I Might Have Learned Something’

Some on campus haven’t been quite as understanding. Emily Anderson, an associate professor of English, wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper disagreeing with its position on Szechwan.

“Becoming thoughtful citizens of the world requires that we confront sexist, racist, classist and colonialist texts,” Anderson wrote. “It also requires that we confront the texts that upend our sexism, racism, classism and colonialism … If I, as a person identified as white, cannot rightfully teach Edward Said’s Orientalism because I am not Palestinian and did not suffer the cultural oppression that Said suffered, I cannot explain how his theory of orientalism undoes the arguments put forth by the white, imperialist critics who preceded him. Worse, my students can’t talk about it.”

Anderson noted that Szechwan literally acknowledges its own shortcomings, asking in an epilogue, “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t be angry! Please! / We know the play is still in need of mending.” And then, “We’re disappointed too … / In your opinion, then, what’s to be done? / Change human nature or -- the world? Well: Which?”

She added, “There is plenty to criticize in Brecht’s plays, but we can’t criticize them if we haven’t seen them. There may have been plenty to criticize in this production of Szechwan, but as it will not be produced, we will be unable to criticize it. This is a pity, as I might have learned something.”

The Diversity Committee of the Student Senate responded to Knox in another op-ed, saying, "The operation of racism, sexism and colonialism within the arts does not merely exist in the past -- nonwhite writers, actors, artists continue to be pushed out today. This was also the context from which the students were protesting The Good Person -- it was not only a protest against this specific play, but the past and ongoing practices of racist casting and productions within the Knox theater department as well as the theater world beyond." Theater, the committee wrote, "is an embodied art -- it takes real people playing 'orientalist' roles within the setting of the problematic Orient. Would it really have been worth the emotional distress of students and the perpetuation of Asian stereotypes to put on a play so that it might be criticized?"

Carlin-Metz reiterated that the play and others like it will be staged, lest “We never read anything written before yesterday. And obviously that’s not going to happen.” Moreover, she said, “The dominant culture is afraid to talk about race. And we can't be afraid, because if we don’t talk about race we can’t fix anything.”

The key will be finding the right way to do so, she said, adding that the “landscape is changing every day.”

Knox said in a statement that it’s “proud of the open dialogue between our students and faculty, which addressed important issues and concerns that frame our faculty's teaching.” As a college that values inclusion and equity, it said, “we welcome disagreement, dialogue and debate among our community members. It is essential to our mission as a liberal arts college.”

Not the Only One

Szechwan wasn’t the only play canceled this week; Brandeis University also called off a play about the comedian Lenny Bruce, written by Michael Weller, a well-known playwright and alumnus. On that campus, however, both students and faculty members expressed concern about the play’s treatment of race. Brandeis said in a statement that “After receiving a draft script of Buyer Beware in early July, theater faculty members considered the challenging issues it raised. They felt that more time was needed to produce the play appropriately, and that its performance on campus should go hand in hand with robust educational programming.” Weller, citing concerns about the "creative environment," decided to stage the place at an off-campus professional venue.

Carlin-Metz noted the development with some irony, saying, “You don't get more left-wing than Lenny Bruce.”

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