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Play canceled following student and alumni dissent

By Ryan Spencer and Elianna Spitzer

Section: Featured, News

October 20, 2017

“Buyer Beware,” a controversial play set on the Brandeis campus, will not be performed at Brandeis following a “mutual decision” between the Theater Department and the playwright, Michael Weller ’65, according to a statement from the Theater Department.

“Buyer Beware” will premiere at an off-campus location with professional actors performing the play, according to the Theater Department’s statement.

Originally planned to take place this semester, “Buyer Beware” bypassed the “play selection committee,” the normal process for adding plays to the line-up. It was later rescheduled to the spring semester, then it was reconstructed as a Spring course, before its cancellation earlier this week.

The decision to cancel the play comes after weeks of criticism which included emails to President Ron Liebowitz, Facebook posts to raise awareness and a phone and email campaign led by Brandeis alumna Ayelet Schrek ’17.

The event page had hundreds of invites and was scheduled for Oct. 2 to 6, according to Schrek. It is unclear how many calls and emails were sent as part of this campaign. The page provided phone numbers of three Theater Department professors as well as two of their emails, the email for another theater department professor and emails for Dean of Students Jamele Adams and President Ron Liebowitz so that those invited to the page knew who to contact.

“[“Buyer Beware”] positions a white man as the brave protagonist and a black man (and BLM) as the over-reacting, violent antagonist,” Schrek wrote in a Facebook event page which called on anyone opposed to the play to join in a “CONGRESS STYLE PHONE CAMPAIGN.”

Schrek, who lives in San Francisco, California, told The Brandeis Hoot that she’s never read the script. “I trust the people who told me about it. I don’t need to read the actual language to know what it is about,” she said in a phone interview with The Hoot. Schrek argued that the department wanted to put it on for “political gain” and in a Facebook post wrote, “It is an overtly racist play and will be harmful to the student population if staged.”

The Hoot obtained a copy of the script titled “rehearsal draft.”

Sitting outside a dorm, the main character, Ron, repeats what he hears on his MP3 as he listens to audio recordings of Lenny Bruce, a white stand-up comedian who drew national attention in the 1950s and 60s for his obscenity-laced performances and unyielding commitment to free speech. Ron found the audio in the Lenny Bruce archives in the Brandeis library.

The supposed quote contains eight uses of the n-word and four other slurs which are also repeated.

“Imagine if we just kept saying these words over and over again, sooner or later they’d become meaningless noise,” says Ron quoting Bruce, in between chains of slurs. A black student overhears Ron’s quotation of Lenny Bruce and then takes to Facebook to express himself.

Outside of the Lenny Bruce quote, the n-word is used two other times by a black student named Tan.

Ron plans a comedy routine in the style of Lenny Bruce but does not intend to use Bruce’s exact language. The Brandeis administration threatens him with academic probation in hopes he will cancel his performance so that student protests do not fall on the same night that a wealthy alum, who has criticized student protests including Ford Hall 2015, visits campus.

At the climax of the play Ron performs and students protest. In his comedy routine he cracks a joke about the Israel-Palestine conflict, suggesting Israelis, “give the Palestinians the land you took, just give it back, but rent it back.”

In the play, his comedy performance is a direct challenge to the Brandeis administration. “If Lenny Bruce came to life right now, for one day, and he was booked for a gig on campus. How would the administration react?” he says.

Lenny Bruce is described on the Brandeis website as a “Free-speech pioneer. Satirist. Cultural Icon.” His life is chronicled in an exhibit in Farber Two in the Brandeis University Library.

“The issue we all have with it is that [Weller] is an older, straight [sic] gendered, able-bodied and white man. It isn’t his place to be stirring the pot,” said Andrew Childs ’18 in a phone interview for a Hoot article published on Sept. 29. Andrew Childs is an Undergraduate Department Representative for the Theater Arts Department and a member of the season’s “play selection committee.”

Rather than put on a performance of “Buyer Beware,” the School of Creative Arts will offer a course in the spring “devoted to the challenging issues Michael’s work evokes.”

Weller will still be honored this spring with the Creative Arts Award to “celebrate his significant body of work, which includes over 40 works for the theater,” according to the statement.

Brandeis established a contract with Weller when he came to campus last fall to complete his residency, according to Brandeis Director of Media Relations Julie Jette. A residency is traditional for recipients of the Creative Arts Award, though it is not required. During these visits, Weller spoke with members of the Brandeis community and spent time in the Lenny Bruce archives.

There is no contractual obligation for Brandeis to perform “Buyer Beware” nor is there an obligation to talk about the play in the course, according to Jette.

The “team-taught” course will explore “the role of the arts in opening up dialogue and conversations about contentious, sometimes offensive and important issues such as freedom of expression, academic freedom and artistic genres that provoke discomfort,” according to the statement.

“The instructors of the course will determine which readings and art works will be included in the syllabus. They have complete academic freedom to do so,” clarified Professor Susan Dibble (THA), the interim theater department chair.

The course will not contain the script of “Buyer Beware” unless the University chooses to obtain the copyright permission to do so, according to Dibble who is also a member of Brandeis’ Task Force on Free Expression.

During an Oct. 2 meeting on Free Expression, a professor asked Task Force members on the panel whether they thought the decision to turn “Buyer Beware” into a course fit the principles listed in the Free Expression guidelines announced early in September. At the time, Dibble referred to “Buyer Beware” as an ongoing situation.

The Draft Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression state that Brandeis should not exercise prior restraint. “The university has a responsibility to encourage the airing of the widest range of political and scholarly opinions, and to prevent attempts to shut down conversations, no matter what their topic,” according to the draft principles.

When Childs created a Facebook post to express concern over “Buyer Beware,” he cited principle three of the draft principles which reads, “All members of the Brandeis community bear the moral responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions have on the community.” Childs wrote, “Reevaluating our responsibility to the campus community as a whole is not censorship.”

In addition to the award from Brandeis, Weller has received the NAACP Outstanding Contribution Award, a Drama Desk Award and Academy Award nomination for his works in theater and film. His most famous works include “Moonchildren,” “Loose Ends” and “Ragtime.”

Weller could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts to contact him.

The 2015 recipient of the Creative Arts Award, Tony Arnold, helped students earn music internships and provided on-campus music lessons to fulfill the educational aspect expected in exchange for the award.

Brandeis received the Lenny Bruce Collection in 2014 with a grant from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. The collection includes an archive of documents as well as 65 recordings on reel-to-reel audio and compact cassette tapes. The tapes have been digitized with the help of a grant from The Grammy Foundation Grant Program. All documents and recordings are available in the Brandeis library.

Professor Adrianne Krystansky (THA), who first provided The Hoot with the department’s statement, declined to comment further on the subject. President Liebowitz is traveling and could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Related Coverage:
Liebowitz says ‘Buyer Beware’ decision is consistent with draft free expression principles

Brandeis Hoot Exclusive: Director details frustration leading up to cancellation of ‘Buyer Beware’

  • CurmudgeonNYC

    This is horrible and idiotic. Alumni and other protesters are imbeciles.

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