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FIRE sends open letter critiquing ‘Buyer Beware’ decision

By Ryan Spencer and Elianna Spitzer

Section: News

November 14, 2017

An open letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) urged President Ron Liebowitz to re-invite Michael Weller ’65 to stage “Buyer Beware,” a play which uses material from the university’s Lenny Bruce archives. Kitty Bruce, daughter of Lenny Bruce, signed the open letter.

The letter, posted on the FIRE website and emailed to Leibowitz on Monday, requests that the university explain what material within the play was “too ‘challenging’ for its students and faculty” and questions whether the Lenny Bruce archives, housed in the Brandeis Library, are in the “‘appropriate’ place.”

The play was cancelled in October when, after the theater department pushed the play to the spring and suggested moving it to the Black Box theater in Watertown, the playwright withdrew his work. There was minimal to no communication with the playwright regarding decisions made by the theater department, according to conversations with Weller and the play’s director.

“One of the only possible ways that the situation can be mended is to re-invite Michael to put on the play,” Nico Perrino, a spokesperson from FIRE, told The Brandeis Hoot in a phone interview.

“Buyer Beware” follows a fictional Brandeis student who, after stumbling upon Lenny Bruce in the Brandeis archives, is inspired to put on a Lenny Bruce style comedy routine, according to a draft of the script obtained by The Hoot earlier this semester. Sitting outside a dorm, the main character, Ron, repeats what he hears on his MP3 as he listens to audio recordings of Bruce. In the course of a Bruce quote he uses the n-word and other slurs multiple times.

Multiple Brandeis students and at least one alum raised issue with its depiction of the Black Lives Matter movement, its use of the n-word by a white character and the way black characters were written, as stereotypical and lacking depth, students said. In emails and phone calls to the theater department and Brandeis administration, several students requested the cancellation of the play.

The title of the play, “Buyer Beware,” reflects the title “Let the Buyer Beware” on a 2004 box set of Bruce’s comedy, according to the open letter.

Brandeis acquired the Lenny Bruce archives from Kitty Bruce in 2016. Archives at a university are maintained and used for educational purposes. “[Weller] did what you would hope someone would do with archives at the university,” said Perrino.

Kitty Bruce holds the copyright of materials in the Lenny Bruce collection, according to an email from Sarah Shoemaker, the Associate University Librarian for Archives & Special Collections.

Kitty spoke with Perrino on the phone after becoming aware of the play’s cancellation. She gave input on the language of the letter.

“It would be the best thing for Lenny, his legacy, and the legacy of [Louis D.] Brandeis if the university tried to right this wrong,” said Perrino.

FIRE based the letter on media coverage of the script and surrounding controversy. They have not spoken with Weller about the open letter.

“Our unease is amplified by the fact that such censorship may occur at Brandeis University, named after the staunch free speech advocate and United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis,” said Perrino.

Louis D. Brandeis, the namesake of Brandeis University, wrote Supreme Court decisions upholding freedom of speech. In one famous decision, Whitney v. California, Brandeis wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In multiple statements, the administration has stood by the fact that they did not and should not have any role in the production or cancellation of “Buyer Beware.” Perrino explained that the administration should not interfere with academic decisions, but has a responsibility to uphold principles of free expression on campus. He suggested an administrative effort to produce the play without involvement from the theater department faculty.

Liebowitz has not responded to requests made in the open letter as of the publication of this article. The open letter requested a response by Friday, Nov. 17. Perrino explained that if he does not respond on behalf of the university as of this date, FIRE will escalate the pressure.

“I think he owes it to Kitty Bruce to explain what happened here,” said Perrino. Speaking only on behalf of himself and not the other signatories of the letter, Perrino said, “It would be a tremendous shame that a man who suffered possibly more than anyone else for censorship should be posthumously censored.”

Open letter signatories include the authors of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce,” the director and producer of “Can we Take a Joke?” and the comedian and magician Penn Jillette. Attorney Robert Corn Revere, who petitioned in 2003 for the governor of New York to grant a posthumous pardon of Bruce, also signed the letter.

“We tried to keep it just to people who are concerned with the life and legacy of Lenny Bruce,” said Perrino.

Last week The Dramatist Guild of America and The Dramatists Legal Fund released a statement objecting “in the strongest possible terms” to the cancellation of “Buyer Beware.” This statement requested that the theater department “present a clear explanation for their actions” and explain “what viewpoints are permitted to be expressed in a dramatic work at Brandeis.”

In place of “Buyer Beware,” Brandeis plans to offer a team taught course in the spring. The course will be analyze and discuss “provocative works of art that may cause discomfort, including the legacy of Lenny Bruce,” according to the most recent statement from the university. The class will study genres including theater, film and visual art. Weller has told The Hoot that the university will not be able to use his play in this course due to copyright.

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