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Canceled campus play progresses off-campus years later

“Buyer Beware,” a play which was originally meant to be performed on the Brandeis campus in Fall 2017 but was canceled following controversy and concerns over its content, is “in development” for performance elsewhere, according to the playwright Michael Weller ’65.

Weller, a Brandeis alum, first drafted the play after he had a chance to visit campus as part of his receiving the 2017 Creative Arts Award from Brandeis. He used interviews with students and research in the Brandeis archives to help inform the play about a Brandeis student who discovers comedian and free speech icon, Lenny Bruce, in the university archives and becomes inspired to do a comedy routine of his own.

At the time, he was excited to write the play for college theater “because it would be a chance to write for a very large cast,” but, in newer drafts of the play, what once was an 11-person cast has since shrunk to become more commercially viable, he said.

An updated script of the play was read several weeks ago in New York in front of a group of “backers who expressed interest in it,” he told The Brandeis Hoot. It could be seen by the public as early as next year, according to an article in The Boston Globe. The play has a new director, Tony Speciale.

Weller said that after it became clear that it wasn’t going to be performed on campus in 2017, he put “Buyer Beware” to the side to focus on two other plays. At the time, he hadn’t finished writing the script, even though it had already sparked protest from some students and alumni for its portrayal of black characters when a draft copy—shared with a select group within the theater department—was leaked.

Students claimed the play contained stereotypical black characters and some called on the administration and theater department, asking for the play to be canceled. At first, “Buyer Beware” was postponed to Spring 2018 but it was eventually withdrawn by Weller after frustrations with communication from the theater department.

“When I heard that African American kids were up in arms, I started asking my own African American friends and playwright buddies to look at it and give me pointers,” Weller said, noting that he has since made changes to the interactions of white and black students in the script.

(There is no indication that African American students in particular objected to the script. Though objections centered around the way the play depicted black characters, they were most often voiced publicly by students who were not black.)

“Not to toot my own horn,” Weller said, “but it’s a very good play.”

Early in “Buyer Beware,” the Bruce-inspired Brandeis student is overheard by a black student as he recites a monologue by Bruce which uses the n-word. When he schedules a comedy performance—incidentally on the same night as a wealthy donor is visiting campus—the student faces both student protest and pressure from the administration to cancel the comedy routine.

“It’s very timely and important and similar sorts of repressive steps have been taken on other campuses, so I think there is a feeling just afoot that this whole subject has to be addressed by somebody,” Weller said.

When “Buyer Beware” was canceled at Brandeis in 2017, free speech advocates with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent an open letter to university administration urging the university to re-invite Weller and “Buyer Beware” to Brandeis and voicing concerns of censorship. The administration maintained that the play had not been cancelled or censored by Brandeis.

Karen Eilbacher, an actor who read the part of a black student activist during the reading in New York, said of “Buyer Beware,” “I love this script so much,” according to an article published by The Boston Globe.

“Buyer Beware” is developing with “unusual speed,” according to Weller, who compared it to another play he wrote, “Fifty Words,” which only had two characters and one set but took six years to reach the public. Weller was nominated for an Oscar in 1982 for his play “Ragtime.”

He also mentioned that he is working separately on another version of “Buyer Beware,” which he is crafting as a miniseries. He gave few details about this project.

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