Senior Zak Metalsky did not know that the play he petitioned to direct, “Fix Me, Jesus,” offended anybody until one cast member rejected her role because she felt it was excessively racist. Metalsky chose the play for what he saw as its ability to confront important social and political issues, but within a week it was cancelled without a replacement.
Metalsky and his production manager, senior Emma Lipson, postponed the script’s scheduled read-through for Friday, Jan. 5 and instead held the discussions that would ultimately lead Metalsky to cancel his production the following Monday and Tuesday.
“I do feel disappointed,” Metalsky said. “I still feel passionately about the script and think it does deal with the content in a way that makes it a positive message about battling prejudiced attitudes as opposed to encouraging prejudiced attitudes.”
“Fix Me, Jesus” is a play set in Dallas, Texas during the 1980s with flashbacks to the 1960s. It raised concerns during the discussion because of its racially prejudiced characters, offensive language and references to both body image issues and suicide.
The discussion involved the play’s entire cast and crew. Afterward, Lipson and Metalsky asked each member individually where they stood. They learned that most of the cast, as well as two production members, felt the script did not appropriately handle its subject matter and no longer wanted to be involved.
“By that point, regardless of whether you think the play is problematic or not, there is still not enough time to find replacements for everyone,” Metalsky said. “We just didn’t have the time to do it correctly.”
Metalsky made the final decision to cancel the production.
The cancellation of “Fix Me, Jesus” follows the cancellation last November of “The Good Person of Szechwan,” a major production that was set to be directed by theatre professor Neil Blackadder this term. “Good Person” raised concerns from students who felt that the play used Asian culture as a prop and that casting white students as Asian characters was offensive.
While Metalsky believes that the two cancellations occurred under different circumstances, he feels there are still some important similarities and implications.
“I respect people’s qualms with both of the plays,” Metalsky said. “I also understand the worry that two cancellations in the same term, let alone the same year, can make people shy away from trying to direct plays that deal with serious subject matter like ‘Fix Me, Jesus’ does.”
Professor of History Emre Sencer expressed his concern about the cancellation of “Good Person of Szechwan” during a faculty meeting last term. Although he was not involved in the cancellation of the play, Sencer opposed the decision because he believed it infringed upon freedom of expression.
“Historically speaking there has been a bias on the side of white males,” Sencer said, referencing the objections surrounding “Good Person”. “But I do think we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the health of a liberal arts education.”
Sencer believes that liberal arts colleges should primarily serve as places to engage ideas, especially those that are conflicting. He thinks that it is important for students to protest as long as people with controversial ideas can still express themselves.
“The only kind of protest I am not for is protest that is based on shutting down either other students or faculty,” Sencer said. “The faculty’s understanding of the matter and the student generation’s understanding are somewhat different. Many of the faculty fear that freedom of speech could be curtailed, or that they may have to engage in self-censorship.”
Others, however, do not see the cancellation as an issue related to freedom of speech. Interim Dean Michael Schneider, for instance, believes that the cancellation of “Good Person” showed the importance of dialogue in the campus setting.
“One of the themes that this whole thing validates is that we’re better off when we hear each other’s opinions and try to understand what they are rather than assume what they are,” Schneider said. “In that sense, episodes like this that involve controversy are not necessarily unhappy controversies. They show some of our values.”
Schneider cited what he sees as media outside of Knox mischaracterizing the cancellation as censorship as the only drawback of what happened. He then explained that freedom of expression is threatened most when students who feel offended are not sure how to voice their opinions.
“Where I’ve seen problems is when nobody really wants to talk,” Schneider said. “They say, ‘I’m offended and I don’t really want to hear about it.’ If students don’t feel like they have a place to go, then that’s when the institution needs to respond.”
Senior Ren Barkey, who was one of the Theatre Advisory Board members who helped make a list of grievances about “Good Person”, sees the cancellation as a turning point for the Knox Theatre Department and for students who they believe are now more comfortable raising their concerns.
“I feel like with the ‘Good Person of Szechwan’ the whole thing that came out of its cancellation was more important than actually having the show produced,” Barkey said. “I don’t think that any of these things would have been talked about or the same organization of the Knox community would have occurred. I feel like the cancellation was better in a way for creating a challenging thought process.”
Metalsky, though disappointed about his play being cancelled with no replacement, does feel that the process of holding a dialogue was meaningful.
“This wasn’t censorship of free speech,” Metalsky said. “We had an honest dialogue where we could honestly hear everyone’s opinions on the matter. I think this somewhat relates to the ‘calling out nature’ that is on campuses. Calling out is a good thing. As people in an educational setting, we should want to be called out if we do something that is harmful to others. We should see being called out as an opportunity to reflect and change and do more good for the world.”