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At Williams, a Play in Part About Race Called Off Before Opening Night

In wake of tensions, Shayok Misha Chowdhury, a visiting professor and director of Beast Thing, will no longer seek a tenure-track position at the college.

December 7, 2018
 
Williams College

The theater department at Williams College canceled all scheduled performances of Beast Thing after several students withdrew from the cast and others approached the department with concerns about the show the day before opening night.

The aborted play at Williams comes at a time of tension on many campuses over portrayals involving race and racial concerns over casting; plays were canceled at Knox College and Kenyon College after they were criticized for their portrayal of racial groups, and just last week the Asian American Alliance at Columbia University booted a comedian midshow after he made several racially insensitive jokes.

“The students objected to some of the representational material [in Beast Thing],” said Amy Holzapfel, associate professor of theater at Williams and chair of the department. “Some of the design elements that went into the production and some of the artistic choices, they wanted to be different, they wanted them to change. The artistic team felt really strongly that the decisions that they were making were the right decisions in order to best represent the work.”

According to the event description, Beast Thing is a “play-in-progress” by Aleshea Harris, and in it “the town Saint is charged with 'eating' the town’s sins. The townsfolk believe they can rid themselves of all their ugliness. In reality, they are emaciated by their own secrets.”

"The play is a critique of the radicalized national mythology that we call 'Americana.' It’s an attempt to step into and explode certain archetypal stories and characters in American culture that are inevitably marked as white," said Shayok Misha Chowdhury, a visiting professor of theater and director of the play. "[It includes] characters like the sheriff and the saint that the piece is explicitly attempting to poke fun at and explode in some ways."

The cast originally included six white students and five students of color. After rehearsals began, two of the white actors left the cast for personal reasons, but Chowdhury said their departures set the tone for the production.

"The rehearsal room felt very precarious very early on, because every day I would have to express to the cast that someone was leaving," he said.

Inside Higher Ed reached out to several cast members, who did not respond to requests for comment, but they have been quoted in the campus paper as saying that they felt uncomfortable in their roles and were worried about how their performance might affect audience members.

Looking back, Chowdhury wonders if putting on Beast Thing at Williams was a "fool's errand." Its downfall did not occur in a vacuum. Last year, the college brought Underground Railroad Game, a traveling performance that critiques race and desire in America, to campus. Several students were upset by the performance, and, according to Chowdhury, the resulting discussion left white students and faculty shy about performing work that deals with race.

"Their actions resulted in a culture of fragility and fear on campus, and particularly with white students and faculty on campus, about what students of color can and cannot handle," Chowdhury said.

Three students of color chose to leave the Beast Thing cast.

"There were three students of color who left the cast, and I don’t want to speak for them, but I think that they felt uncomfortable with the casting," Chowdhury said. "They felt uncomfortable with the fact that there were still majority white actors in the piece, and they felt uncomfortable with the fact that they were involved in creating a piece of theater that was very much a critique of whiteness with white students, which is real concern."

A cast that's almost 50 percent students of color was atypical for the small liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. According to federal data, white undergraduates make up 51 percent of the student body. Twelve percent of the students are Asian, 8 percent are black and 13 percent are Hispanic/Latino. After selecting Beast Thing, the department made an effort to recruit more students of color to audition.

“We reached out to many minority student groups on campus to share the project with them and encourage members to audition,” Holzapfel said. “Many students of color did audition, and the cast, in its original formation, included a diverse group of students.”

On the evening before opening night, students told Holzapfel that they were not comfortable performing the play as it was; unwilling to ask the artists to compromise their vision for the play, the department decided to cancel the show. All tickets have been refunded.

“It’s been devastating for everyone, it’s been awful,” Holzapfel said. “What was strange was it is almost like the campus became the town [in the show]. All of the sudden we were in this ghost space of this thing that might have been.”

Chowdhury sent a letter expressing his disappointment to the cast and creative team. It has also been posted to Facebook.

“This experience has been harrowing for me and, I imagine, for many of you. I believe the production we were building was a worthy exploration of Aleshea’s play, and I believe its cancellation constitutes a profound disrespect to everyone who contributed their artistry and worked tirelessly to realize the vision of this project,” Chowdhury wrote. “I am embarrassed to have brought my collaborators -- artists whom I respect deeply -- into the line of fire.”

As a result, Chowdhury has rescinded his candidacy for a tenure-track position at Williams, but he will remain a member of the faculty through the end of this academic year.

In an op-ed by the editorial board of the Williams Record, Williams College’s student newspaper, students wrote about their objections to the play’s cancellation.

“It is disappointing and counterproductive -- for the cast, the creative team and the campus as a whole -- that this revolutionary work by a playwright of color did not find an audience here at the college,” the board wrote. “The college is a predominantly white institution that must grapple with both the space it gives these voices and how it presents them. Simultaneously, the students involved in Beast Thing have a right to express their experiences and concerns regarding the rehearsal process and end product.”

Performing work by a black playwright that does not cater to a white audience was one of the reasons Chowdhury wanted to bring the play to campus in the first place.

“While white artists imagine themselves free to experiment and write whatever the fuck they want, artists of color are asked to speak for their entire community, to be less Black or less Mexican so that their work is legible to white audiences, to not air their community’s dirty laundry in front of white people, etc.,” he wrote. “Constantly having to jump through those hoops is paralyzing. Aleshea refuses to do so … I wanted to give students the challenge and the opportunity to be part of making a new play by a writer who, in my opinion, is radically re-imagining what is possible.”

In the end, student objections could not be reconciled with the artists' vision.

“We would never have made any students perform against their will; nor were we going to ask the artists involved to compromise their vision for the piece,” Holzapfel said. “What developed was a situation in which the Theatre Department felt it would be in the best interest of everyone involved to take the pressure off, so that we could regroup, take a step back, and reconsider how best to serve the interests of our pedagogical mission moving forward.”

As the department prepares to begin rehearsals for its next play, Beast Thing will remain a topic of conversation.

"We are engaging the opportunity of our next production to conceive of new ways of developing and nurturing art in our community, starting with initial and very honest and transparent conversations about what happened with Beast Thing," Holzapfel said.

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