The replacement of the play “Buyer Beware” with a spring course dealing with the challenging issues it evokes is consistent with the “spirit” of the non-policy Draft Principles of Free Expression and Free Speech commissioned by President Ron Liebowitz, according to a statement from the president.
The play, written by Brandeis alum Michael Weller ’76, was condemned by multiple students who called for it to be cancelled for its use of the n-word and its portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement after some students saw a draft of the play.
Brandeis will award Weller the Creative Arts Award this spring, and last fall, he spent a residency doing research for the play in the Lenny Bruce archives and speaking with members of the community. Weller was “advised by a member of the Department of Theatre Arts not to engage further with students about this issue,” according to an email he sent to The Brandeis Hoot after multiple requests for comment.
The cancellation of the production of “Buyer Beware,” first reported in an Oct. 20 Hoot article, was a mutual decision which followed “open and productive conversations with Michael [Weller],” according to a statement from the Theater Arts Department.
“Decisions on how, where and when to present material are made by faculty on a daily basis at Brandeis and all universities,” said Julie Jette, director of media relations.
Last fall, President Liebowitz convened a Task Force on Free Expression to “reflect on and re-examine our university’s policies and practices related to academic freedom and free expression.” Members of the task force included administrators, faculty members and students. Interim Theater Department Chair, Susan Dibble, sat on that task force.
The Draft Principles of Free Expression, which were signed by 16 of 18 members of the task force earlier this semester, are not policy but will be “discussed in open meetings this fall before they are shared with the Board of Trustees and adopted to guide university policy,” according to a posting on the Brandeis website for a meeting scheduled for Oct. 30. Liebowitz said, “the draft principles are principles and do not represent policy.” Task force members made the same point when speaking with The Hoot.
The Draft Principles can be found on the Brandeis website with a Brandeis login. There have been two open meetings this semester to discuss the principles, but they were not well attended. The meeting on Oct. 30 is the final meeting scheduled for this semester.
Dibble, the theater department chair, said Tuesday that she was not involved with last week’s final decision to cancel the premiere of “Buyer Beware” at Brandeis. She declined to say who was involved the decision. Professor Adrianne Krstansky (THA) released the most recent statement about the play on behalf of the theater department.
Liebowitz stated that Theater Department faculty and Weller made the ultimate decision to cancel the play.
Dibble declined to comment on how the cancellation of “Buyer Beware” aligned with the Draft Principles of Free Expression and Free Speech she signed earlier this semester.
“I want some space from the [“Buyer Beware”] issue,” she said. She also told The Hoot that some things need to be discussed further.
Members of the Free Expression Task Force who responded to requests for comment from The Hoot had varied knowledge of the issue and gave conflicting accounts of other task force members’ involvement in the issue.
“Free expression, including in the arts, implies the free exchange of ideas,” according to the Draft Principles. “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.”
Dibble told The Hoot, “I believe in the principles” and as an artist specializing in dance and movement who speaks with her body, she felt educated by the time she spent working on the Free Expression Task Force.
Professor Rajesh Sampath, also a Free Expression Task Force member who signed the Draft Principles, told The Hoot he was consulted for his “opinion on the play and how the community would receive it” in an August call from an individual in the Theater Arts Department. He said two other people in the Theater Arts Department asked for his opinion prior to the telephone call. He would not name any of the individuals who consulted him and was not involved “the actual decision to go forward or cancel the play.”
Speaking on “an individual capacity” as a faculty member who was not representative of the Task Force as a whole, Sampath said that we live in complex times and, in his opinion, we must recognize a “trade off” between free speech and the harm that certain speech may cause to members of minority groups.
“We live in a time when the use of racial epithets, regardless of intent, may cause harm. If we foresee a certain word [causing harm], why would we go forward and use it, even in art?”
Early in a draft of “Buyer Beware” obtained by The Hoot, the play’s protagonist uses the n-word multiple times while quoting Lenny Bruce, a stand-up comedian and free speech absolutist from the 1950s and 1960s whose life is chronicled in an exhibit and in archives at the Brandeis University Library.
“We as an institution have a responsibility not to do harm,” Sampath told The Hoot.
“There were other members of the task force that were directly involved in the question of whether or not to put on this play,” Task Force member George Hall, an economics professor, told The Hoot. He listed Dibble, Sampath, Professor John Plotz (ENG) and Mark Brimhall-Vargas.
Hall told The Hoot he had not read the play and was not aware that the production had been canceled.
Task Force member Javier Urcid, professor of Latin American Studies, told The Hoot, “[the task force’s] charter was not to adjudicate on specific cases or events,” and that neither he nor “any other member of the task force would have been involved on the decision to cancel the play.”
Task force member Professor Thomas Pochapsky (CHEM) told The Hoot, “I was unaware of any of this (I am not even sure what “Buyer Beware” is).” Sylvia Fishman, another member, also knew nothing.
The readings and content of the spring course, which will be a team-taught course in the School of Creative Arts, are at the discretion of the instructors of the course, according to an email from the Theater Department.
Dibble said that the script for “Buyer Beware” may or may not be contained in the course and that instructors have “complete academic freedom” to determine the readings and art works included in the class.
Jette told The Hoot, “The instructors do plan to engage directly with the script and the issues it raises” but “reading the full script in class is contingent upon Brandeis obtaining copyright permission from the company that will produce the play. We are hopeful that we will be able to obtain that permission.”
“The play will surely be addressed in the course,” according task force member Aida Wong. “The department chairs in the Creative Arts Division and others met to discuss the matter, and got a good sense of why “Buyer Beware” (which was circulated when it was still in draft form) has become a difficult issue.”
Elianna Spitzer contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that Rajesh Sampath did not support the performing of the play. Sampath did not make this statement, and this is not an accurate representation of his thoughts.
Play cancelled following student and alumni dissent