On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Brandeis awarded playwright Michael Weller ’65 the Creative Arts Award. The award ceremony focused on Weller’s theatrical career, with remarks from University President Ron Liebowitz, Prof. Gannit Ankori (FA) and Weller himself.
During the ceremony, President Liebowitz used his platform to apologize to Weller for the “unfortunate events” that caused Weller’s work Buyer Beware to be pulled from the campus’ production schedule. Weller responded by using his platform to blast the anti-Buyer Beware “virtue police,” a demeaning term clearly aimed at the student activists who opposed production of Buyer Beware because of its negative portrayal of people of color and heavy-handed usage of racial slurs.
Weller’s speech was an imagined conversation between him and the ghost of Lenny Bruce. His use of Lenny Bruce is an indication that he had no intention of backing down from the offensive stance of his work. The speech was a joke, taken about as seriously as the students’ concerns. Rather than using his platform to apologize to the student body for the issues his play has caused or otherwise acknowledge that he was out of line in his treatment of students of color, Weller openly mocked the student activists who ensured their university wouldn’t condone the usage of racial slurs by white students. Michael Weller’s speech repeated jokes that were out of touch and insulting, showing his lack of respect for the school unto which his hoisted his offensive play. His disavowal of student activists of color as overzealous, heavily racialized “virtue police” shows his lack of understanding and disrespect toward the Brandeis student body.
Weller misunderstood the anti-Buyer Beware protests as the work of a few racialized “virtue police,” when disapproval of the play was present throughout the student body. When Weller’s work was announced, the Brandeis student body reacted with near-universal disgust with the play. Theater majors threatened to drop their majors and withdraw their honors theses, and an open letter was put out by concerned students stating that they didn’t want this production to continue, and a number of student leaders actively sought out conversations with administration. Students became activists, eager to ensure that they wouldn’t be complicit in racial incitement. While the play was eventually pulled, to the joy and approval of many Brandeis students, university administration still honored the playwright. This honor is an insult to the many students who worked tirelessly to have to play pulled from the school.
Even before the controversy over Buyer Beware began, Michael Weller paraded his condescension of Brandeis students. He exploited students involved in the Ford Hall 2015 movement, whom he interviewed for the play, to more accurately parody them as racial caricatures. Brandeis is still honoring this man, however, who has time and time again shown that he has no respect for the voices and opinions of people of color and has openly mocked students who have tried to hold him accountable for the distress he’s caused, all the while still seeing himself as the victim. Brandeis’ support for Weller’s repeated insults to Brandeis students is the biggest insult of all.
It’s an insult to the students who have put countless hours into making this campus a better place through the activism, both within and without of the Buyer Beware controversy. It’s an insult to the people of color who stood up to a predominantly white institution during Ford Hall 2015. It’s an insult to every student whom Weller targeted through this racist play. More than anything, it confirms the persistent stereotype that the Brandeis administration does not care about or listen to its students. As if planning to produce a play filled with racial slurs wasn’t enough, administration still felt it necessary to honor the man who wrote it. Michael Weller has no place at Brandeis, and the Brandeis administration has no place deciding that a privileged white man’s career is more important than the concerns of its student body.