CHESTERTOWN In the time since Washington College canceled two performances of a students Senior Capstone Experience production of The Foreigner, social media has been wrought with concerns of censorship by Washington College.
In an effort to address these concerns, the college hosted a virtual meeting through the platform, Zoom, Wednesday, Nov. 20. According to an email sent Friday, Nov. 15, to those on a college mailing list, the meeting was to be attended by college President Kurt Landgraf, Associate Professor of Theater Brendon Fox and Susie Chase, vice president of advancement, alumni affairs and constituent engagement.
The college community was notified of the plays cancellation through an email sent on behalf of Provost and Dean of the College Patrice DiQuinzio at 12:54 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8.
According to that email, the cancellation stemmed from voices in our community who were deeply wounded by certain representations in the play.
The Foreigner, a two-act comedy written by Larry Shue and first performed in 1983, was approved by the colleges Department of Theatre and Dance to serve as the studentsSenior Capstone Experience some time ago, Wendy Clarke, director of college communications, wrote in an email Nov. 19. Performances were scheduled for Nov. 8 and 9.
Clarke wrote the decision to cancel the play was influenced by a combination of factors including some students reaction to the play.
The play includes characters who are members of the Ku Klux Klan and appear on stage in white hoods and robes. Although these characters are very clearly the villains of the story and are vanquished by the plays other characters, their presence within the play was deeply upsetting to some, the email from DiQuinzios office reads notifying the WC community of the plays cancelation.
Clarke wrote that two days before dress rehearsals, Laura Eckelman, associate professor of theater and interim chairman of the theater department, notified the colleges public safety office and counseling services, as well as Sarah Feyerherm, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, in an email that the play included content that could potentially upset some members of the campus community.
Clarke wrote the plays use of KKK robes, fake guns as props and the use of racial and gender slurs led Eckelman to notify DiQuinzio about a possible content warning for the play.
Feyerherm then sent Eckelmans email to staff members who work with student groups on campus Clarke named the Office of Intercultural Affairs which called a meeting Thursday, Nov. 7, to discuss how to ensure that all members of the campus community could be considered.
Clarke wrote that Feyerherm, staff members, Eckelman and Fox were present at that meeting.
With not enough time during the morning meeting to resolve all of the concerns, it was decided to hold an additional meeting and include some of the student voices, Clarke wrote.
That meeting was held the day of a dress rehearsal and included students, staff members who are advisors to minority group on campus, DiQuinzio, Clarke, Feyerherm and Eckelman.
Clarke wrote that the students who attended the meeting were extremely distressed and expressed extreme frustration and hurt that they hadnt been told about the play much earlier, or had been given the opportunity to let their feelings be known until this late in the process.
In an article for the student newspaper The Elm, News Editor Cassy Sottile reported Eckelman said she did not see the plays cancellation as an act of censorship. She called it a course correction made by and with the theatre department.
As an artist and an educator, I believe fervently in the value of theatre as an engine for empathy, a tool for social change, and a vehicle for encouraging difficult conversations, Eckelman said in Sottiles report. But I also feel a personal, social and professional responsibility to treat my neighbors with as much care, respect and compassion as I possibly can.
Clarke wrote that, at this time, Eckelman apologized on behalf of the department for not fully considering the plays potential ramifications and for not seeking student input sooner. Eckelman decided to allow a closed showing for department faculty, so that the students senior thesis could be graded.
(The department) could have done a better job at including constituencies on campus to understand the content of the play and converse about it, Landgraf said in Sottiles report.
Clarke wrote that the decision to cancel the play was not pushed by the college administration over the will of the department of theater and dance, but was made by Eckelman with DiQuinzio and Feryerherm's support.
A post-show discussion panel was intended to be held after the Nov. 8 performance to address the appearance of the KKK members on stage, The Elm report reads.
To address the resulting concerns of censorship for college alumni, an email was sent out from Landgrafs office on Monday, Nov. 11.
According to that email, the play centers on a group of people who feel othered by society in various ways, including premarital pregnancy, neurological differences and age. Through the course of the play, these characters build a community. That safe space is threatened by xenophobic anger and self-proclaimed entitlement of two other characters.
In the climax of the play, the community of disenfranchised protagonists rises up to easily defeat the bigoted antagonists (who reveal themselves as members of the KKK). It is through the portrayal and defeat of these villainous characters that the play conveys its message about the evils of xenophobia, the dangers of othering, and the importance of empathy, the email reads.
According to Landgrafs email, the colleges intent was to prevent further harm to members of our community who already feel marginalized.
However, on social media platforms such as Facebook, college alumni called this act censorship.
Landgrafs email acknowledged those reactions saying censorship is anathema to the core values of Washington College, and this was never our intent.
His email said the college is working to find a way to present the play that enables the campus community to have a productive, thoughtful conversation.
We will work with all of the relevant student groups, staff, faculty, alumni and Board of Visitors and Governors to determine the best way to accomplish this and to find the most constructive path forward, the email states.
Additionally, The Elm reports that Landgraf and Feyerherm attended a Student Government Association senate session on Nov. 12. Landgraf also attended a dinner with SGA officers.
This is not the first time the performances of the play have been met with controversy. According to an article by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader from March 5, Sioux Falls (S.D.) School Districts production of The Foreigner was found to culturally insensitive, the article reads.
According to Clarkes email from Nov. 19, staff at the college are looking into staging a production of The Foreigner in the spring, but what form this will take has not been decided yet.
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