PEN America Joins with Other Groups in Condemning Cancellation of Play at Santa Monica College
Production is Cancelled for Sensitive Content
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
PEN America is joined by the Dramatists Guild, the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, and the National Coalition Against Censorship in condemning the cancellation of a play at Santa Monica College last month.
The play, which is about interracial romance between a white male plantation owner and a Black male slave, generated significant controversy on campus. It was ultimately canceled prior to production after administrators asked the cast to vote on if the play should continue. While the majority of the cast wanted the show to go on, it was ultimately canceled.
The cancellation harmed both the academic freedom of the director, Perviz Sarowski, and the College community’s ability to see, critique, and react to artistic expression.
We understand that the concern over the play’s production was primarily due to the sensitive content of the play and that students may have been asked to perform lines or actions that made them deeply uncomfortable and to which they objected. We celebrate students’ right to protest, even vociferously, but we also believe that discomfort should be confronted through dialogue and preparation, not censorship; indeed, the play had already received rewrites following such dialogue with cast members, some of whom chose to leave the production entirely.
Choosing to cancel the play days before production not only took away the students’ access to this dialogue, but it also denied audiences the opportunity to engage with the material and protesters’ opportunity to make their opposition heard. Our country’s fraught racial history is no secret. But as this history is being debated and challenged, it’s vital that educational institutions remain a space for open learning and reflection — rather than censorship. Art is an invitation to public dialogue — even on controversial issues. Only by bringing these ideas out unto the light of day can they be vetted, discussed, critiqued and even rejected.
See the full text of the letter below.
Dear President Jeffery:
We write to you as a coalition of free expression organizations to object to the cancellation of the play By the River Rivanna in October.
As a public institution, Santa Monica College is required to uphold the free expression rights of faculty and students. Theater directors enjoy the academic freedom to choose which works to assign in their courses. We are concerned that this freedom was violated by the school’s cancellation of By the River Rivanna in response to community protest and administrative coercion. While we respect that students involved in the production ultimately voted to cancel the public presentation of the play, we are concerned about the role of administrative pressure in shaping the outcome. The cancellation harmed both the academic freedom of the director, Perviz Sarowski, and the College community’s ability to see, critique, and react to artistic expression. It is a further violation of the rights of the playwright, G. Bruce Smith, whose work was judged before a finished version of it had been read or seen.
As we understand the facts, the play is about an interracial romance between a white male plantation owner and an enslaved Black man in the 1800s. Some student groups quickly condemned it for “trafficking in stereotypic tropes” and lacking respect for students with African ancestry; many also objected to the racial identities of the playwright and director, despite Smith’s extensive research. Following the backlash, the school instituted a round of voting by the cast in order to determine if the show should go on. Students initially voted to continue or slightly delay the production; a second vote, held to determine if the play should be presented only for friends and family, passed by majority rule. Because eight of the 21 cast members voted against it, the play was ultimately canceled, against the desire of the majority of the cast.
To our knowledge, such a voting process was instituted on an ad hoc basis in response to controversy and does not follow any established protocol within the department or the college. We are concerned by reports of administrative coercion, as well as the appearance of putting a faculty member’s academic freedom up to a vote and ignoring the needs of the majority of the cast. We are further concerned that the playwright’s ethnicity was at issue; who has a right to tell a story and who gets to decide is an important debate, but it can never be a pretext for censorship.
Choosing to cancel the play days before production not only took away the students’ access to a genuine dialogue, but it also denied audiences the opportunity to engage with the material and protesters’ opportunity to make their opposition heard. Art is an invitation to public dialogue — even on controversial issues. Only by bringing these ideas out unto the light of day can they be vetted, discussed, critiqued or even rejected.
We recognize that the play can no longer go on in its original form, as it was tied to the academic calendar. We urge the administration to help the theater department locate an alternative venue for the play, and to create clear policies for when and how theater productions will be chosen.
As a public college, Santa Monica College should have in place clear and consistent policies for artistic expression, to ensure that the College’s actions do not run afoul of the First Amendment. It is imperative that such policies are evenly applied in the future, and that students and faculty in the theater department are able to enjoy the fullest extent of their artistic and academic freedom.
Dramatists Legal Defense Fund
National Coalition Against Censorship