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No More ‘Good Samaritan’

Kenyon professor calls off original play about cultural insensitivity amid criticism that it's culturally insensitive.

February 2, 2018
 
Kenyon College
Wendy MacLeod

A Kenyon College professor of drama called off her original play after some on campus complained about how it portrayed Latinos.

Wendy MacLeod, a Kenyon alum and its James Michael Playwright-in-Residence, released her script for The Good Samaritan last month with a planned April premiere. The play is inspired by a true story in which a group of Guatemalan minors were forced to work on an Ohio egg farm; three of their captors were convicted and a fourth was indicted last year. MacLeod’s play imagines what might happen if one of the youth escaped to a nearby liberal arts college and encountered a group of less-than-culturally-sensitive white undergraduates.

If the play was meant as some kind of mirror for Kenyon’s students, they’ve turned it back on MacLeod: members of Adelante, an on-campus Latin American students’ association, and others have accused MacLeod of making Hector, the main character, a stereotype or prop. He speaks relatively little, and no English at all, and the other characters refer to him as “illegal,” for example.

MacLeod initially responded to her detractors by inviting them to discuss the play at a forum Kenyon organized, set for Thursday of this week. But a day before the planned event, MacLeod announced in a statement that she had canceled the play “out of respect for the concerns of students and members of the faculty.”

Though “some struggled with the script’s satiric elements,” she said, “Freud aptly wrote that humor is about ‘bringing the repressed into light.’”

The campus newspaper, The Kenyon Collegian, subsequently criticized MacLeod in an editorial, saying that her response to the controversy demonstrated a lack of “accountability.”

“The issue here is not one of repression -- which can be a self-inflicted act -- but of systemic oppression,” reads the editorial (emphasis theirs). “MacLeod fails to take responsibility for her role in perpetuating damaging stereotypes in a time when profound dangers face those who are undocumented immigrants in this country.”

MacLeod said via email Thursday that she began The Good Samaritan with the best of intentions, after hearing about the victims of human trafficking working at a farm no more than 50 miles from campus. She wondered what would happen if the “two worlds collided.”

“My work tends to explore dark subject matter in an unexpectedly satirical way, and this may not have come across in the script the way it would on stage,” she said. “Some understandably feel that you can’t write a satire about a subject this painful, but the comedy was at the expense of the privileged college students who fail to fully understand the plight of the undocumented teenaged character, both literally and figuratively.”

MacLeod said the play would have changed and “deepened” during rehearsals but that, in the end, “I don't want to put my students in the difficult position of choosing between working on my play and supporting their friends in the Latinx community. The controversy has tested the limits of freedom of expression as we consider the legitimate feelings of our diverse community.”

She said the decision to cancel the play was hers alone and that Kenyon's administration has been as supportive as it can be.

Balinda Craig-Quijada, chair of dance, drama and film, said that neither the administration nor the faculty attempted to censor MacLeod, but that the department respects the playwright’s wishes to cancel the production.

Much of the controversy involved the perception of stereotypes portrayed in the play, Craig-Quijada said, and concerns over whether such stereotypes “normalize" negative images of Latinos rather than providing “a vehicle to deepen understanding of the timely politically charged issues surrounding illegal immigration.”

While some might argue that students lost out on the educational experience that is helping to develop a new play, Craig-Quijada said, what was “undoubtedly gained was a civil, respectful, passionate and informed discussion on campus about representation and misrepresentation and the pain and burden” Latino students and faculty members on campus felt at “having to both clarify and justify their feelings.”

Members of Adelante, in particular, “showed strength and character and a willingness to engage in honest, difficult discourse,” she said.

Mary Keister, a college spokeswoman, said Thursday that MacLeod’s script “prompted valuable discussion and debate within the Kenyon community about cultural representation, the free expression of ideas and the role of artists in advancing social change by addressing difficult topics in their creative works.”

Keister added, “The conversations prompted by the play’s script reflect the crucial work that colleges do to cultivate an inclusive community that values free expression. Kenyon will continue to engage in this work with energy and urgency. Kenyon’s faculty reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of expression in a statement issued last spring, and the college remains dedicated to pursuing dialogue and exploring complex topics with sensitivity, with nuance and with courage.”

President Sean Decatur expressed similar sentiments in an email he sent to students earlier this week, which said, in part, “The thoughtful and careful critiques that I have seen and heard from students thus far suggest that this can and will be an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding of the issues, and to learn from one another’s experiences, perspectives and study.”

Several plays on other campuses have been canceled for similar reasons this year, including Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan at Knox College. Not to be confused with MacLeod’s play of a similar name, the Knox production was criticized by students for perpetuating harmful Asian stereotypes. The play, first performed in 1943, is set in China.

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