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Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, is no longer teaching this semester after he showed his students the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s Othello, which stars white actor Laurence Olivier in blackface as the titular character.
Sheng, who is from China, apologized in writing for his choice after students voiced their discomfort with the blackface portrayal. But some undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty and staff members in an open letter further criticized Sheng for writing that he’d cast people of color in musical productions throughout his career.
Sheng’s letter “implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers,” says the student and faculty open letter, as first reported by the Michigan Daily student newspaper.
Sheng declined an interview request and did not respond to a series of written questions by deadline.
David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, referred a request for comment to a university spokesperson. That spokesperson, Kim Broekhuizen, said via email that it’s “important to note that Prof. Bright Sheng was not removed from teaching his seminar class this fall. The decision to have Prof. Sheng step away from that class was a decision that he and Dean Gier made together. They agreed to that approach and Dean Gier notified students in the class.”
Sheng continues to provide private lessons this term and is scheduled to teach in the winter term, Broekhuizen said.
All full-time instructors of music, theater and dance are required to complete antiracism training, Broekhuizen also said. Music faculty members “actively engage students with discussions of race and racism in their classrooms,” she continued, and music history “offers lessons that remain significant today, including how blackface minstrelsy as a part of U.S. popular music was both a product of and a way to support racist stereotypes; however, charged lessons such as these must include proper context and should always be presented with care and sensitivity.”
The school is “committed to fostering a culture of academic and artistic excellence that is safe, equitable, and inclusive for all students, faculty and staff,” Broekhuizen said, and it has already taken “major steps to prevent and address sexual misconduct and create a positive culture by hosting educational sessions and symposia, making physical adaptations to our facilities, and updating access policies, along with other changes.”
Michigan has faced a series of sexual misconduct scandals in recent years, both within music and the university broadly.
While Sheng has apparently completed antiracism training, some of his supporters highlight his non-American background.
“Imagine surviving the Cultural Revolution in communist China in 1955, only to reencounter it on an American university campus in 2021,” wrote Robby Soave for Reason.