Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Vitali and Olga / Shutterstock.com)
Some campus controversies are beyond parody. Indeed, sometimes campuses almost become parodies of themselves, like earlier this year when Northwestern University launched a Title IX investigation of a professor for writing a book about being investigated for saying there are too many Title IX investigations.
This month, Brandeis University may have joined these farcical ranks after a fictional play about offended Brandeis students pressuring their university to cancel a scheduled artistic performance reportedly resulted in real-life offended Brandeis students pressuring their university to cancel a scheduled artistic performance.
FIRE wrote an open coalition letter to Brandeis for more information about its reported handling of the controversy surrounding the scheduled staging of Michael Weller’s play “Buyer Beware” this month. One emblematic protester called it “an overtly racist play.” The playwright and director say it’s nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, the play is now cancelled, leaving the public unable to make up its own mind.
Last week, Brandeis responded to FIRE’s letter. The university argues that Weller’s play was not “cancelled,” “censored,” or “abandoned.” Instead, it claims that the playwright and the theater department faculty merely had differing opinions regarding how the play should be staged and, as a result, Weller decided to take his production elsewhere. While this narrative might seem benign, reports from media outlets, students, and those involved with the play itself paint a more complicated picture of what happened.
When the university first announced the play’s cancellation, it said that theater faculty “considered the challenging issues it raised” and “felt that more time was needed to produce the play appropriately.” It went on to state that Weller and the university discussed possible dates in February to stage the production before Weller ultimately decided to cancel the production because “rehearsals of the play, and growing sentiment among some students in the theater department, might not be conducive to the creative atmosphere desired for a premiere presentation of a new work.”
The “sentiment” to which Weller refers seems to stem from protests coordinated by some students and at least one alumna who were offended by the play’s themes and its depiction of certain individuals and groups. According to The Brandeis Hoot, the protesters organized a phone, email, and social media campaign to pressure Brandeis administrators and faculty members into canceling the play.
One alumna is quoted as saying “Buyer Beware” would be “harmful to the student population if staged.” And although she reportedly did not read the play before rendering her opinion and calling for its cancellation, she contended that she didn’t “need to read the actual language to know what it is about.” Another current student told The Hoot that “[t]he issue we all have with [the play] is that [Weller] is an older, straight [sic] gendered, able-bodied and white man. It isn’t his place to be stirring the pot.”
FIRE obtained a “rehearsal draft” of the script for “Buyer Beware.” The play is about a fictional student at Brandeis named Ron who decides to do a comedy routine on campus after listening to material he found in Brandeis’ Lenny Bruce archives.
One day, while Ron is in a common area listening to and memorizing a Bruce bit that uses the word “nigger,” Ron’s black suitemate Javon confronts him about the word. Ron explains that he’s quoting Bruce and that Bruce used the word in the context of trying to take away its power, but Javon explains that it’s still a demeaning word and that Ron’s use of it near him is distracting.
Javon subsequently posts on social media about his exchange with Ron. The post is picked up by Black Lives Matter and generates a lot of attention. University officials become concerned that Ron’s routine might result in protests on the same day a wealthy donor plans to visit campus. The officials attempt to cancel the performance by threatening Ron with academic probation and telling him the room he reserved to host his performance is no longer available. In the end, Ron finds a way to move forward with his routine against the university’s objections, and despite student demands for a ban on the performance and protests calling it “racist and offensive.”
According to The Hoot, the content for the play “was pulled from approximately 30 official and 45 to 50 casual conversations [Weller] had with members of the Brandeis community” and from material found in the Lenny Bruce archives.
A cancelled play
It was in this environment of student protest that production of “Buyer Beware” seems to have come to a screeching halt. Sam Weisman, who helped conceive the project beginning in 2014 and was directing the play prior to its cancellation, confirmed that “Buyer Beware” was slated to be staged at the Laurie Theater at the Spingold Theatre Center from Nov. 16–19, and that those dates were set a year ago. The play would have full sound and lighting capabilities. Weisman told the Chicago Tribune that “costume and lighting designers were hired. A set was designed, a model built. Floor surfaces were chosen, and furniture discussed. Our composer started playing with musical ideas, blending Lenny’s voice with hip-hop beats and hooks. We were excited about casting the show once summer break was over. We were moving ahead with what I considered an important new play.”
In late September, however, things changed. The Theater Arts department allegedly proposed to Weisman moving the play off campus to a location with limited resources, 10 days to rehearse, no involvement from students, and no marketing support to get the play in front of students. It was then that Associate Professor of the Practice of Theater Arts Robert Walsh allegedly told Weisman that the department didn’t want the play to be produced. Weisman confirmed to FIRE that he then reported this conversation to Weller, which led to Weller’s decision to move the play away from Brandeis.
Prior to Weisman’s conversation with Walsh in late September, reports indicate that Walsh had expressed excitement about the play to Weller, describing it as a “very compelling journey for the students.” What led Walsh to change his mind between his first reading of the script in early June and his conversation with Weisman in late September remains unclear.
“I have been wronged without even having a discussion,” Weisman told The Hoot. “It is a mixture of anger, confusion, resentment, and deep, deep sadness. It appears that my association with the university that dates back decades appears to be over.”
Weisman confirmed a third-party report that he recently received a letter from Susan Dibble, a professor of creative arts at Brandeis and the acting chair of the Department of Theater Arts. The letter allegedly apologized for the situation and expressed sadness at the play being pulled. Until then, Weisman confirmed, he had not heard from the department since Walsh told him that the department wanted the play to go away.
Contrary to the university’s public statements about the controversy, the Dramatists Guild, to which Weller belongs, claims the university never offered Weller a spring production of the play. Instead, he only heard “indirectly about the possibility of doing it at ‘a 60-seat black box theatre in Watertown that has some lights, and a budget for one or two professional actors.’” This flies in the face of Brandeis’ claim that Weller was involved in planning a production of the play next year.
In another statement to radio station WBUR, Weller denied that the university had even been in touch with him since he delivered the play, and contended that the university’s handling of the decision not to produce the play is “dangerous and corrosive” and that he was “personally heartbroken” about the decision.
It was following these reports that FIRE organized our coalition consisting of Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty; comedian Penn Jillette; and others concerned about censorship and the life and legacy of Lenny Bruce. The coalition wrote to the university to express our concern that a scheduled play relating to Bruce was allegedly throttled because it included content that some on campus found offensive. We wanted to know what material in the play Brandeis found “challenging.” We also wanted to know why, when an agreement couldn’t be reached with Weller to find a more “appropriate” setting for the play, did those in charge of the production not stick to the original plan?
Our concerns were amplified by the fact that the controversy was occurring at Brandeis, which is named after free speech champion and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. We were all the more concerned considering Brandeis’ role as the institutional custodian of the Lenny Bruce archives, and reports that Weller used the archives to research his play.
We called upon the university to answer our questions “in a manner consistent with the principles of freedom of speech to which the university claims to commit itself, principles that are integral components of Lenny Bruce’s and Louis Brandeis’ legacies.” We also urged the university to reinvite Weller to stage his play as intended.
Brandeis responds to FIRE
The university responded to our letter on Nov. 14. However, it was unresponsive to our concerns and questions and repeated much from its original, Nov. 6 statement: that the university didn’t cancel “Buyer Beware,” that the play wasn’t censored, that the theater faculty merely wished to postpone the play so that it could be “performed alongside a new semester-long course that would explore the issues it raises in a rigorous and thoughtful educational venue,” and that a production committee was formed toward these ends.
Weisman confirmed that he told a third party that neither he nor Weller were made aware of a production committee to produce the play in the spring. Presumably he or Weller would have been aware of such a committee. He said the university’s statement seemed like “spin” from its communications department. His use of the word “spin” to characterize the university’s statement was confirmed by FIRE.
The university’s response, such as it was, didn’t divulge what material exactly it claimed the faculty found “challenging” and that necessitated a postponement of the production. It didn’t respond to Weller’s contention that he was never directly offered a rescheduled production of the play. It didn’t explain why, when a more “appropriate” production couldn’t be agreed upon, it didn’t stick to the original plan. And it didn’t answer our question about reinviting Weller to stage the play, as intended.
Granted, the university administration argues that the decision to “postpone” the play, resulting in Weller’s decision to subsequently abandon it, was a faculty decision and therefore it would violate the theater department’s academic freedom if the administration stepped into the fray. Fair enough.
However, none of this explains why the administration, separate from the theater department, couldn’t offer to organize an independent, on-campus production of “Buyer Beware” that maintained the integrity of Weller’s vision — a vision which, up until student protests, the university seemed to support.
Administrations host events and productions on campuses all the time. While it’s unclear if Weller would accept such an invitation, we believe the extension of one would go a long way toward rectifying the situation and preserving the spirit of openly engaging with “challenging” material, not capitulating to offended protesters and subsequently forcing an artist and his colleagues to abandon a project because they could no longer agree that the university was capable of preserving the integrity of the art.
A student responds to FIRE
While the university might not consider the events leading up to the cancellation of “Buyer Beware” to be censorship, public statements from a student leader to FIRE clearly indicate an effort to shutter the production.
In his open letter to the signatories of FIRE’s coalition letter, the student, an undergraduate departmental representative for Theater Arts and a leader of the push to cancel the play, stated, “In silencing this particular work’s presentation on our campus, we are not refusing to engage with troubling perspectives or prohibiting others from learning about them. We are merely refusing to further disseminate the idea that, in demanding justice and equality, people from marginalized communities pose some sort of threat to our nation’s state of well-being.” [Emphasis added]
The student continues, “I struggle to understand why ‘freedom of speech’ must be tolerated and even elevated before we consider the safety and well-being of individuals who belong to marginalized communities … There is a conundrum when we begin talking about tolerating intolerance.”
He concludes his letter with some suggested guidelines for future Brandeis plays, the first being that, “A controversial play may only be presented from a seat of consciousness.”
Notably, the student’s letter also admits that the theater department refused to speak with Weller for a time.
Why? The questions stack up.
The student clearly does not believe that he and his colleagues in the Department of Theater Arts engaged in censorship. Indeed, he writes in his letter that he “would be more than happy to eat my hat if someone could actively and consciously convince me that I have engaged in anything resembling censorship.”
But how is “silencing” a planned production of a play because you dislike its content not censorship, or at least contrary to principles of free expression? What’s more, the student makes claims about the play that his peers are not able to judge for themselves because the play was never staged. He alleges that the play disseminates the idea that “people from marginalized communities pose some sort of threat to our nation’s state of well-being.” Does it? It’s hard to believe that Weller, an NAACP Outstanding Contribution Award recipient, would agree with that characterization.
Is Weller’s art more nuanced than the student is letting on? Shouldn’t we let people judge for themselves? And even if Weller’s play is everything the protesting students say it is, why not engage with it instead of silence it? Why not have the discussion with him from an informed place?
“The initial rough first draft of Michael Weller’s ‘Buyer Beware’ was a great starting place for a potentially important theatre piece,” Weisman told FIRE in an email. “Any theatre professional knows that new works of theatre go through transformations that can only take place in the rehearsal room, working in collaboration with all participants. Making theatre is like life: the best things are the surprises. We will never know what might have happened in mounting ‘Buyer Beware’ at Brandeis. Judgement was passed before a word was read aloud.”
A changed mind
We should note that Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, has subsequently changed her mind since signing on to FIRE’s open coalition letter. Of course, she is well within her right to do so. However, her statements to The Justice indicate that she now agrees with the protesting students’ arguments. She now contends that the play’s cancellation was not censorship, but instead “protection.” We are not aware that Bruce has read the play’s script.
This begs the question: protection from what? Words? Ideas one might find “mean spirited,” as she puts it? Obviously, we at FIRE do not countenance that justification for cancelling a planned performance of a play.
“I’m totally behind free speech,” Bruce tells The Justice, “I’m totally behind no censorship, but I’m also very aware that free speech — there is a point to where you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater. And if they would have put this production on, that would have been fire on Brandeis.”
The play does not constitute unprotected speech, as Bruce alleges. The “shouting fire in a crowded theater” trope has represented some of the worst apologia for censorship for nearly a century. Indeed, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes first wrote those words, he was doing so in the context of imprisoning a dissenter during World War I.
In The Justice article, Kitty Bruce also alleges that there may be a copyright dispute between her and Weller regarding the use of her father’s work in “Buyer Beware.” That is between her, Weller, and the university. However, this issue does not seem to have played a role in the faculty’s decisions surrounding this month’s production of the play, nor in the student protests in support of “silencing” the production.
Weisman confirmed a third-party report that he and Walsh met with Brandeis University General Counsel Steven Locke during the conception of a Lenny Bruce play. Locke told them that there would be no copyright concerns for the play, so long as Lenny Bruce was quoted, not portrayed.
Unfortunately, we may never know the full details surrounding the cancellation of this month’s production of “Buyer Beware” at Brandeis. There are dueling allegations and a lot of off-the-record chatter. However, what we do know is that there was an effort to prevent the play from being staged because some people found its content offensive. And what we also know is that for most of the Brandeis community, they won’t ever get a chance to decide for themselves whether those people were right.