ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Beast That Devours Itself

Identity politics and deplatforming in college theater

Reason
January 7, 2019 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Beast Thing should have warmed the hearts of progressive students. It is a play written by a black playwright for a largely black cast that aims to critique whiteness and create a space for black performers. Yet in mid-November, the Williams College Theatre Department felt compelled to cancel the production of this play following student complaints that minority actors were valued a "token" for their race, that white students would feel uncomfortable, and that violent and upsetting imagery in the play would be unsettling. Although the cast included a relatively high percentage of students of color, the director believed that students also objected on grounds that the cast was still too white.

The Williams cancellation is not an isolated incident in the world of college theatre. Last year, Knox College cancelled a production of Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan on grounds of its perceived portrayal of Asians and insufficient representation of minorities in the cast. (It is unclear whether the censors at Knox recalled that Brecht's works once fed the flames of Nazi book burnings.) Brandeis University, which bears the name of one of America's greatest defenders of the First Amendment, censored a play about Lenny Bruce, a comedian prosecuted for obscenity, on the same charges of racial insensitivity that "deplatformed" Brecht.

In the case of Beast Thing, the professor who organized the show, Misha Chowdhury, is a self-described "queer Bengali," and in the lament to the Williams College community that he posted online, he noted that "formidable queer women of color" were his mentors. It is hard not to feel sorry for Chowdhury, but he and Beast Thing were doomed from the start by the culture of Williams College and the same identity politics that he embraces.

Credentials like "queer Bengali" and "formidable queer women of color" are no protection in the fierce jungle of identity power struggles. The extensive trigger warnings that accompanied the promotion for the play likewise failed to reassure the campus community. The dominant culture at Williams felt that the play "would disturb and harm audience members -- students of color, in particular." In turn, the actors "express[ed] fear of being called out or canceled by their peers if they were to participate in this production." Thus, a "Black playwright and a Black video designer and Black actor [were asked] to revise their project … because it would cause harm to Black audience members." The Williams community, in the words of the director, "policed what people of color are allowed to do and make and say." The real beast in this saga was identity politics, and its lust to find and devour offenders is insatiable.

At Williams, the culture of finding offense prevails even over the minority voices that it purports to protect. Last year, Zachary Wood, then a senior at Williams and president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student organization that brings controversial speakers to campus, was criticized intensely for inviting John Derbyshire to speak. Derbyshire is surely a dislikable racist, but the reaction to the invitation was also shocking. Wood is an African American, and he assuredly did not identify with the speaker's views. His was an attempt to promote a critical dialogue with a speaker that he vehemently opposed. But this did not stop students from calling him "a sellout" and "anti-black," and it did not stop Williams College from canceling the event.

Poor Prof. Chowdhury wanted through the production of Beast Thing to push "back against that internal and external censorship, which artists of color are constantly navigating" since they "are asked to speak for their entire community." He wanted to give minority students an opportunity to step out of their day-to-day roles so that they could lose themselves in their character and create a work of art. But when the levers of power are built around group identity and competing claims of victimhood, an individual voice is a disposable distraction.

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.