Playing Politically Correct

By on July 28, 2005

Protesters disrupted his play by shouting down the actors, blocking the aisles, rushing the stage and threatening the audience, and student playwright Chris Lee expected Washington State University officials to  ake action.

They did, but not quite in the way he expected. After an inquiry, the university’s Center for Human Rights concluded that the student hecklers had engaged in an appropriate expression of free speech after being provoked by the play “Passion of the Musical.”

University President V. Lane Rawlins agreed, telling a faculty member in an e-mail that the protesters had “exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner by letting the writer and players know exactly how they felt,” according to the student newspaper, the Daily Evergreen, which obtained a copy of the e-mail.

Not only were the 40 protesters absolved of any culpability, but Mr. Lee said he later found that a university administrator had paid for their tickets.

Mr. Lee, who said he was so fearful for his safety and that of the cast during the April 21 production that he called 911, is fighting back. He contends that university officials are punishing him for running afoul of the campus’s politically correct zeitgeist, and has called on the  university in Pullman, Wash., to apologize and renounce its position.

“It’s like they were trying to teach me a lesson, like, ‘Well, Chris, you wrote the show, this is what happens,’ ” said Mr. Lee, a 23-year-old senior theater major. “They let [the protesters] censor my show.  They’re clearly wrong, and they’re not apologizing — they’re not even  answering.”

Lawyers for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who have intervened on Mr. Lee’s behalf, have written to Mr. Rawlins twice  asking him to renounce the university’s support for the so-called heckler’s veto.” So far, he has refused.

“Heckling a play is clearly censorship,” said David French, president of the Philadelphia-based foundation. “You don’t have the right to heckle it to death. Would the administration have taken the same view if the ROTC had come in and heckled an anti-war play?”

University spokesman Robert Strenge disagreed with the censorship charge, saying that the play was funded partly by the university and hosted in a school theater.

He said the hecklers were encouraged to voice their objections by the cast, who sometimes spoke to the audience directly and left the stage to perform in the aisles, which “helped the performance take on the quality of a public debate.”

Greg Lukianoff, the foundation’s director of legal and public advocacy, ridiculed that argument.

“Does this mean that any time a play addresses the audience it becomes a public forum?” he said. “Under this theory, every soliloquy in Shakespeare would turn a theater into a discussion hall.”

Mr. Lee’s play, a satirical takeoff on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” had no shortage of critics. The play was loaded with ethnic stereotypes, racial epithets and jokes aimed at Christians, Jews and Mormons, and was advertised as potentially “offensive or inflammatory to all audiences.”

Mr. French described the play’s outrageous, irreverent humor as along the lines of television shows like “South Park” and “Chappelle’s Show.” The point was to create a show so widely offensive that no one in particular could be offended, Mr. Lee said.

“I took shots at everyone so that everyone can say: ‘Hey, we all have something that other people can make fun of,’ ” Mr. Lee said. “But then people were saying, ‘You made fun of my group more than you made fun of these other groups.’ ”

Shortly after the April 21 performance began, the protesters began standing up and shouting, “I’m offended,” after jokes. They yelled gender slurs and other epithets at cast members. They let out lengthy, high-pitched screams that drowned out the dialogue and songs, he said.

Mr. Lee said the disruptions were so severe that he stopped the show after about 20 minutes and told them to quit. But school administrators who attended the performance, including Mr. Rawlins, did nothing to stop the hecklers, nor did the campus security guards assigned to the theater.

The protesters, who were affiliated with the school’s Multicultural Center, were particularly offended by a song called, “I Would Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Act Black.”

After the show resumed, Mr. Lee said he was approached backstage by campus security guards who told him that they wouldn’t be able to protect him or the cast unless they changed the word “black” to “blank.”

“They came up and said: ‘The protesters are starting to stand up, and we can’t stop them. Why don’t you consider changing the song, because the protesters are coming toward the stage?’ ” he said.

Mr. Lee, who is black and was ridiculed as an “Uncle Tom” during the show, said he agreed to change the lyrics to protect jittery cast members. At various times, he said he pleaded with guards to remove the protesters but that they refused, even when they harassed individual audience members for laughing along with the play.

The only heckler ejected was a young man who ran toward the stage yelling an obscenity and “I’m going to … kill you.” Guards later allowed that protester to re-enter the theater after a promise of good behavior, Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Strenge said the disruption wasn’t serious enough to warrant further action.

“There simply wasn’t anything that occurred that constituted any violation of student policy,” he said. “Nobody broke any laws.”

Undeterred by the hostile reception of his work, Mr. Lee has written another provocative play that he plans to produce this fall — but with a difference.

“This time, I’m bringing my own security,” he said. “And it’s going to be invitation only.”

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Schools: Washington State University