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UTC performs one night of ‘And Then There Were None,’ follows with talkback

By Sara McCrea and Hannah Schuster

Section: News

April 21, 2018

The Undergraduate Theater Collective (UTC) canceled four of five scheduled performances of “And Then There Were None” after faculty members raised concerns regarding the play’s racist history in an email sent the day of the show’s opening.

Conversations about “And Then There Were None’s” history had been ongoing since December when director Merrick Mendenhall ’20 and producer Emily Arkin ’20 received their positions and started looking for a way to transparently address the issues they found while researching the show’s history.

The original title of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” when it was released in the UK in 1939 was “Ten Little N——s,” a reference to the British blackface rhyme of the same name. The U.S. release in 1946 stylized the title and the rhyme as “Ten Little Indians.” Christie’s novel was then released under the titles of “Ten Little Soldiers” and “And Then There Were None,” which is the final line of the nursery rhyme. The play follows a group of strangers invited to an island where they are serially murdered in ways that mimic the nursery rhyme.

Before the single performance on Saturday, Mendenhall read a three-page director’s note detailing the play’s history and the challenges the cast and production staff faced. At the end of the production, each cast member read a prepared statement addressing their characters’ racism and sexism and how they approached their characters’ motivations. The statements and director’s note were part of the plan for the production before the other four performances were canceled.

At the beginning of Saturday night’s performance, Tres Fimmano ’18, president of the UTC and Rebecca Myers ’18, UTC production manager apologized on behalf of the collective for not recognizing the impact of the play’s history earlier. Audience members stayed after the play concluded to participate in a discussion of the show and the events surrounding its cancellation.

On Thursday morning, Arkin and three members of the UTC’s E-board received an email sent from Professor Carina Ray, chair of the Afro and African American Studies (AAAS) Department and signed by six other AAAS faculty, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Chad Williams, Salah Hassan, Wangui Muigai, Wellington Nyangoni and Faith Smith.

The email did not question whether the students had the right to perform the show, but asked the UTC to consider whether doing so was “right and just” and if the production showed concern for the well-being and dignity of fellow students.

“The most cursory of web searches would have revealed this history,” the email read. “Indeed, the novel’s Wikipedia page features the deeply racist cover for the first edition of Christie’s novel. Even more disturbing still is the fact that once this history was brought to the UTC’s attention, the decision was made to forge ahead without consideration of how you might impact your fellow students, most especially black and Native American students.”

The opening night performance was replaced with a forum to discuss the impact and intentions of the show. At the forum, Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas took two informal polls asking if those in attendance thought the show should go on, and both times the majority said it should. Students recognized those present may not understand how all students could be affected by the performance, given that the majority were white.

After the forum, which lasted for more than two hours, Mendenhall, Arkin, Fimmano, Myers, UTC Communications Director Karina Wen ’20, Student Activities Specialist Robert Steinberg, the marketing and box office manager and the Director of Student Activities decided to cancel all but the Saturday night performance.

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot before the show, Ray said the timing of the email was in part because she knew discussions about the production were still ongoing and hoped the students would come to a different decision about the production on their own.

The UTC selects its shows through a “proposals board” comprised of five students whom the collective elects each semester. The proposals board solicits proposals from UTC members through a Google form and meets to discuss each proposed play before sending a narrowed down list to eligible UTC members for a vote. The factors they take into consideration include how doable the show is with regards to number and type of characters, vocal range for musicals and possible issues with content.

The proposals board became aware of the racist previous names of “And Then There Were None” during their meetings last semester. An email sent to the UTC listserv on Nov. 2 lists options for musicals and straight plays along with links to online summaries in preparation for the vote. UTC votes happen in person, though anyone who is unable to attend can designate a proxy to vote in their place.

At this meeting, participants discussed each of the plays, including the previous name of “And Then There Were None,” though the topic was not discussed at length, according to a source who asked to remain unnamed.

The UTC is now re-examining its selection process by looking to delegate members to read entire scripts of suggested plays and increasing voter turnout when the final play options, usually about five works, are presented.

Transparency and raising awareness about the text’s history has been the production staff’s goal all semester. “As soon as we got our production team, we told them … of the history and of our goal to be extremely transparent and to somehow work to discuss the history in the performance,” Mendenhall said in an interview the day before the show’s scheduled opening. Although UTC productions usually begin rehearsals with a readthrough of the script, during their first rehearsal, Arkin instead led the cast in a four-hour discussion about the show’s history.

“This play obviously deals with a very racist and sexist history,” said Noa Laden ’20, who portrayed Dr. Armstrong, at the Thursday forum. “Shutting it down would not necessarily help that issue, because we wanted to use it as a statement and start a discussion with the piece. That ended up becoming our intention for the piece, to bring to light what it may have been like for people in that time and bring to light characters who we don’t agree with and we don’t like.”

Another member of the production staff said that although she had grown up reading Christie’s novels, it wasn’t until she began working on the show that she realized the problematic aspects. “If I had never joined, I most likely would have continued to so completely idolize Christie and romanticize the period in which this play was set, because I by myself could not understand the implications,” she said.

However, multiple members of the cast and production staff, including Arkin and Mendenhall, said they wished the play had never been selected and expressed frustration with the UTC E-board. During his apology, Fimmano said that the production staff was handed an impossible task when the play was voted in.

Throughout the semester, Arkin reached out to student clubs and 28 faculty members about the play. She proposed the idea of a faculty talkback following one performance. Six professors responded to Arkin, five saying they would not be able to participate in the panel. Ray was the only one to offer a meeting to discuss the issues further, though in her response she said that “by participating in a panel I would believe I would be legitimizing a very serious error in judgment and therefore cannot participate.” Mendenhall later noted there could only be a talkback after one performance and said they wanted a way to engage with the material after each.

Ray said that if the UTC’s production of the play did not centrally wrestle with its profoundly racist origins, but rather relegated them to a faculty panel at the end of a three-day run, she thought it better not to stage the play at all. Ray connected the students with Brimhall-Vargas, and, on March 20, Arkin, Mendenhall and Brimhall-Vargas met in his office, with Ray joining via phone.

At the meeting, Brimhall-Vargas suggested alternatives to a traditional performance, including having actors pause periodically in the play to unpack the scene. He offered to help cover the expenses incurred by the UTC if they decided to cancel the play. Members of the production staff said their resistance to mid-scene pauses was in part due to concerns they might violate their contract for the show’s rights by altering the script. Reading statements at the end helped work around this concern, according to Mendenhall.

The only changes the production staff made to the script were the cutting of one especially discriminatory line and the removal of a visual of a noose that in the context of the show’s history could allude to lynching. They also changed some of the characters’ pronouns, leading some actors to adjust their motivations—for example, so an originally male character’s sexism would make sense coming from a woman.

At the post-show discussion, Ray said she was deeply impressed by some of the actor’s performances, but wished that the efforts of the cast and production staff could have been directed at putting on a different production.

“As much as this was sanitized, every time there was a reference to ten little soldiers, that is not what I heard. I heard [ten little n——s] and I saw the image of the original novel cover, and I saw the dehumanization of black people. When I look at the little soldiers up there on the set, I thought ‘those are whitewashed,’ and that’s how I felt about the rest of the play. I wished your efforts could have been directed at something else instead of whitewashing something in order to be able to put it on,” Ray said.

Arkin said at the discussion after the Saturday night performance that she had suggested canceling the play numerous times throughout the semester, including in meetings with the UTC E-board. “Every time that option was brought to the table, it was made clear, due to a lack of communication or due to a lack of listening, that the show would go on regardless,” Arkin said.

At the Saturday night discussion, parents raised concerns about a lack of faculty engagement and the timing of the AAAS email. “I think the timing was positively cruel and reflected a sort of laissez faire attitude that, as educators, was pretty shameful,” said Josh Abrams, the father of a cast member.

In speaking about the decision to send their letter to the UTC, Ray said at the discussion Saturday night, “I also want every parent in the audience to know that it’s never an easy decision to do something like that, but that we had to be true to ourselves and true to our mission as educators in the field that we work in and understanding the history that we know. It was not intended to do harm to your children, it was intended to forestall what would have been a much more painful situation.”

The opening of “And Then There Were None” came as Brandeis has been grappling with the firing of head men’s basketball coach, Brian Meehan, after claims of racial discrimination and nepotism. Following Meehan’s firing and an article on Deadspin.com detailing instances of Meehan’s racist behavior, President Ron Liebowitz hosted a town hall on Monday, April 9 where students, faculty and staff expressed frustration at the school’s handling of racism on campus.

This climate gave the AAAS faculty an additional “sense of urgency” in sending their letter, according to Ray.

“The UTC could never have predicted that they would be opening the play the same week as everything unfolded with the firing of the basketball coach, the very long and painful town hall, and all of the old wounds that had been reopened,” Ray said last Friday.

The email sent by the AAAS faculty said that based on forum minutes available on the UTC’s website, the efforts of the cast and production staff to work with the history appeared to be an afterthought rather than a starting point. As of print time, the forum minutes from this year are no longer available on the site.

In October of last year, a high school in Hillsborough, N.J. canceled its planned production of “And Then There Were None” because of the original title. In November 2007, an Ohio high school considered canceling a production of the play under the title of “Ten Little Indians.” The superintendent announced the show would be canceled after a local NAACP leader expressed concerns, but rescinded the decision the next day and allowed the show to continue as planned.

Multiple other AAAS faculty members did not return requests for comment as of press time.

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