On Sept. 26, 2017, the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts and Brandeis administrators held a meeting in which they decided to reschedule “Buyer Beware,” a play written by Brandeis alum Michael Weller ’65 and directed by Sam Weisman ’73, from Nov. 2017 to Feb. 2018. The reason for the play’s delay and eventual rescheduling was its subject matter. The play features a white male student at Brandeis University who wanted to perform a Lenny Bruce-inspired comedy routine with heavy use of the n-word, among a number of other racial slurs. The rescheduling followed weeks of controversy and outrage from the student body, with many theater majors threatening to withdraw their theses, boycott and protest shows the Department puts on and even drop their theater arts majors should the show go on. At time of writing, it seems that it will.
The conflict at the core of “Buyer Beware” centers the protesting of the white student’s comedy routine. In it, black student activists, who are heavily racialized in an offensive parody of both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Ford Hall 2015 student activists, are the central antagonists. The student activists are subject to an harsh, negative portrayal, and the show concludes with the student activists being silenced and the show continuing as planned, all due to the help of a wealthy white donor taking pity on the white student.
Frankly, it is not Weller’s place to be writing such a racially charged piece. In writing this piece, Michael Weller, an older white male, is trying to tell people of color and other historically disenfranchised groups that their reactions to racism and racially-charged language are unwarranted and unnecessary. He claims that people give words power, espousing this in a monologue where the play’s leading student drops seventeen racial slurs in the span of three sentences when addressing audience members. However, what Weller does not understand is that it is not his place to determine whether or not offensive language has power or consequence when people of color hear it. Even if we were all to suddenly stop giving weight to racial slurs, that act would not erase centuries of subjugation and discrimination against people of color and black people in particular.
Additionally, it is not director Sam Weisman’s place to be involved in this inflammatory piece, especially given his public attitude towards discrimination. In a story he wrote for the Feb. 5 2016 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, Weisman attacks the efforts to diversify the Academy Awards, stating that he was the real victim. “The current stress the Academy (and the entire business) is under regarding the diversity issue is troubling, to be sure. However, as an older white male currently in the crosshairs, and one of a group generally being blamed for a lack of nominees of color, I wish to add my voice to others who feel wrongfully attacked. I also wish to make a case for my relevance.” It’s therefore not a stretch to say that Weisman sees himself as taking a stand for similar “older white males” in directing this show, despite the controversy surrounding it.
The fact that Brandeis administration and the Department of Theater Arts are allowing this show to continue is extremely troubling; however, it is not surprising given recent administrative proceedings. Not long after he was inaugurated, Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz stated that he would be creating a “Presidential Task Force on Free Expression” to “assess the condition of free expression, peaceful dissent, and mutual respect at Brandeis” and “create a community that is … fully inclusive of those groups who have long been excluded from the free exchange of ideas on campus.” The administration’s words here allude to their potential viewpoints on “Buyer Beware.” This is the viewpoint that “people give words power,” and thus words should not be restricted in any case.
The Task Force on Free Expression is a great example of the problem with the supposedly “pro-free speech” side of the debate. The task force has horrendously disproportionate representation for people of color on campus. Including President Leibowitz, there are 17 faculty and staff on the Task Force. Of these 17, 12 are men, seven of whom are white men. Of the remaining five female members, only one is a woman of color.
To continue production on “Buyer Beware” would be an insult to the student body of Brandeis, which has repeatedly shown opposition to the play and its offensive and casual usage of racial slurs by the white protagonist. Administration has known that students are against this show, yet are still allowing its presentation, going so far as to coincide the production with a spring semester course that will “explore the provocative issues raised in the play and provide an educational context for the work,” as if Weller’s piece needs any context beyond the fact that it is a white man’s lackluster attempt to further stir the pot.
If the show continues, it would symbolize institutional endorsement of white students using racial slurs despite the objections of the people that they target, as well endorsement of vilification of black student activists. Remember, the “satisfying conclusion” of the show is the comedy routine going on as scheduled and black student activists being silenced. The Brandeis of “Buyer Beware” and the Brandeis that we all know are different from each other in their level of acceptance and activism. The racialized and parodied student activists of “Buyer Beware” are not the real Brandeis students from a diversity of backgrounds who have expressed their disgust with the show. They have expressed to the administration their will to keep fighting until the play is no longer permitted on our campus. At our Brandeis, hate has no home, and neither does “Buyer Beware.”