Update: According to an email sent by the theatre faculty on Nov. 2, the production of The Good Person of Szechwan has been canceled. Instead, meetings on Nov. 6 and 7 will take place to discuss alternatives to the production.
As the open forum about Knox College’s production of “The Good Person of Szechwan” by playwright Bertolt Brecht neared its end, the room next to the event began to fill with a rowdy class. The forum, held on Nov. 1, was mainly organized by seniors Jayel Gant and Willa Coufal to address the racial controversy surrounding the play, originally slated to be produced this Winter Term.
Gant asked participants to project their voice to compete against the noise from next door. An awkward murmur erupted from the theatre department faculty — they didn’t want the forum to become disruptive.
“I think that comes down to systemic stuff too, the idea that being loud and taking up space is an inconvenience to others when, no, we had just as much of a right to be there,” Gant said.
Six months ago, Gant and Coufal became troubled when Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder announced his decision to direct the play for Winter Term. The play follows a young Chinese sex worker as she confronts morality and tries to do “good deeds.”
Coufal had learned about the play in one of her foundational theatre classes, and had found its contents to be offensive as a woman of color.
“I recently did a close reading to find out why I was so uncomfortable with the play, a lot of it has to do with historical descriptions of asians on the stage,” Coufal said, “and stereotypes of Asian women that were being formulated and continue to affect women like me today.”
However, Coufal stated she didn’t feel confident enough in her intellectual abilities when taking the class two years ago to speak out about why she was apprehensive. Freshman Erin Jin is a student in Blackadder’s class, who was also made uncomfortable by the teaching of the play.
“I wish I had spoken up then because I felt like I could have said something and brought my insight, but I had been a bit afraid just to talk about it. And being the only East Asian person there I felt like maybe I should go along with everyone, and it’s not my place to say that kind of thing,” Jin said.
A lack of students of color is a problem the theatre department has faced for a while. According to Sophomore Joel Willison, one of the concerns of putting on a play like “The Good Person of Szechwan” was that there were not enough Asian students to cast the play responsibly.
“It’s a play that’s set in China. What Neil is doing, as far as I understand, is taking that and moving that to a Europe centralized setting. Which then makes sure all the characters could be white,” Willison said.
Blackadder stated that he believed the setting of the play to be irrelevant, and was merely updating the play to a different location.
“Though it is problematic if I’m setting it in China, but it’s not really supposed to be China. [Brecht] is still using China as a hypothetical non real place and I can understand why that can seem disrespectful,” Blackadder said.
Gant said that white students were cast in roles meant for people of color in previous productions, such as “Mosque Alert” during the 2014-15 school year. According to Blackadder, the department attempts to cast students of color in roles for people of color whenever possible.
“The whitewashing charge suggests that we have cast white people in roles meant for people of color” Blackadder said. “If that’s happened, it’s only happened in extreme circumstances which is to say we couldn’t come up with any other way to do it, but I’m not sure that that’s happened.”
Coufal also feels like students of color in the theatre department have to put in more emotional work in order to get through their classes, where she says racial insensitivities are often present.
“It takes a great deal of emotional labor, number one, to look at things that make you upset like this,” Coufal said. “It also takes a lot of confidence in your academic abilities, which is difficult on it’s own, but especially so when you’re challenging someone who’s already taught the course before.”
Both Gant and Coufal keep a journal of racially insensitive comments made by the theatre faculty to help validate why they feel so emotionally exhausted as people of color in the theatre department. When asked how he felt when accused of making racially insensitive comments, Blackadder expressed that it was hard for him to hear these accusations from Gant and Coufal and did not feel it was appropriate for him to respond in a defensive manner. He recognizes that he has learned a lot from the recent events and still has more to learn.
“There have been a few times where students have taken offense to things I’ve said in class, but again this is something we need to get a better understanding of, because a lot of things came up.” Blackadder said.
Blackadder does wonder why students in the department waited so long to speak up about the issue.
“So, it’s been hard for me that this play we announced we were gonna do as long ago as last spring, April, there’s now been all this opposition to it in the last three days, and I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for the production.”
Gant and Coufal said that the Theatre Advisory Board (TAB) gave them a window of time to bring their concerns to the department in order for auditions to be postponed, which was one of their main goals. Though, Coufal and Gant realized that a lot of time had passed from when the play was first announced to when the grievances against the play were spoken about to TAB.
“I’ll admit this got put on the backburner when we were off-campus. We did a lot of growing this summer in terms of just learning to talk about social justice in the academic sense and in terms of being put in contact with faculty from other departments,” Coufal said. “..this summer has given me the tools and strategies to make my [frustrations] do something in ways I never thought possible before.”
Coufal and Gant both took to social media to voice their concerns about the play and to invite people to Wednesday’s forum. After the forum, Blackadder told TKS that the department is planning on talking more among themselves and students before any changes are made.
“Maybe if the season selection process included talking to the students about ideas we have and getting suggestions from them and soliciting suggestions from them… that’s one concrete step that I’m already thinking about since this has happened,” he said.
Coufal mentioned that she was very touched by some of the responses from the faculty. What excited her the most was that there were so many freshmen and new faces that were interested in what was going on in the theatre department.
“Jayel and I as seniors, and everyone on TAB, now have a more thorough understanding of the tools we have at our disposal and the best way to organize our thoughts in a constructive way,” she said. “Now future students will not have to be as isolated”
Gant also felt positively about the way students organized during the forum.
“The students part of this department are much closer. There is an intense sense of solidarity between us, whether the faculty wants to join in on that is yet to be determined.”
According to an email sent by Blackadder on the night of Nov. 1, the auditions for “The Good Person of Szechwan” have been canceled and further updates will come by the end of the week. The next day, another email from the theatre department was sent stating that the production had been officially canceled. Meetings on Nov. 6 and 7 will take place to discuss alternative productions.