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Dramatist groups denounce Brandeis for canceling play called critical of Black Lives Matter

Please tell us ‘what viewpoints are permitted to be expressed in a dramatic work’

When Brandeis University canceled a play that was researched and drafted by an Oscar-nominated alum during his Brandeis residency, citing its perceived offense to the Black Lives Matter movement, it also sent a chill through the dramatist community.

Two dramatist groups denounced the private school and specifically named and shamed its theater arts department, which “has yet to utter a single word directly to the playwright [Michael Weller] to explain their actions or justify their subsequent silence,” Broadway World reports.

“Buyer Beware” centers on a white Brandeis student who plans to perform a campus routine in the mold of Lenny Bruce, the pioneering and obscene comedian whose persecution by authorities is used as a cautionary tale in the free-speech documentary “Can We Take a Joke?

The Dramatists Guild of America and Dramatists Legal Defense Fund noted Bruce’s routine included “racially offensive slurs”:

The play is a critique of recent events where college students have demanded the silencing of controversial or unpopular points of view. In an ironic twist, Brandeis’ students have reacted to the planned production of Buyer Beware just as the play suggested they might. …

By taking this action, Brandeis has not only failed to meet its obligations to its students and alumni (including Weller himself), but to the legacy of Lenny Bruce as well, whose archives were entrusted to the school in 2014. Bruce’s career served as a landmark in the advancement of free speech in this country and the University’s cancellation of the play is a violation of that trust.

The groups “object in the strongest possible terms” to the university’s choice to compromise “core principles of academic freedom” and deprive students of “a wide range of viewpoints regardless of how controversial they may be.”

MORE: University cancels play accused of criticizing Black Lives Matter

They note Brandeis has not promised Weller’s play would be “presented in conjunction” with a course this spring that the university says “will engage directly with a variety of controversial works of art” and “address difficult topics.”

The groups also cast doubt on claims that Brandeis was “considering a spring production” of the play, when Weller has “heard only indirectly” that a small theater with “some lights and a budget for one or two professional actors” could stage his play:

Under those circumstances, Mr. Weller will no longer allow the play to be presented at the University and is seeking a production elsewhere.

In unusually strong language, the dramatists declare that no one has “a constitutional right to go through life unoffended” and it’s the job of universities to “challenge and discomfort” students with various views.

They asked the theater arts department for a “clear explanation” of their yanking of Weller’s play and to provide “guidelines … as to what viewpoints are permitted to be expressed in a dramatic work produced at Brandeis University.”

MORE: Famous dramatist says Brandeis canceled his play in a ‘dangerous way’

The university has yet to respond to the dramatist groups’ statement, but it released a statement Monday that claims to celebrate Weller’s work and portrays the junking of the production as a matter of timing and context:

After receiving a draft script of “Buyer Beware” in early July, theater faculty members considered the challenging issues it raised. They felt that more time was needed to produce the play appropriately, and that its performance on campus should go hand-in-hand with robust educational programming. In early September, Mr. Weller and faculty discussed possible dates in February for the production of the play. Mr. Weller was also informed about the creative arts faculty’s decision to design a team-taught course around the play and other provocative works of art in the spring semester, which would accompany the production of the play.

The administration blamed Weller for pulling the play from Brandeis rather than be forced into a supposedly balanced program with Brandeis programming, and it said faculty made all the decisions.

As the dramatists noted, the administration made no suggestion that “Buyer Beware” would be staged alongside the spring course, which will analyze and “openly” discuss “the legacy of Lenny Bruce” alongside other “provocative works of art that may cause discomfort.”

The university said it will honor Weller, who also ventured into film with “Ragtime” and “Hair,” with its Creative Arts Award at a Jan. 23 ceremony.

Weller earlier told a local radio station the school gave a “false” explanation that the decision to cancel was mutual, saying the theater department didn’t respond to him after he “delivered the play.”

Read the dramatists’ Wednesday statement and university’s Monday statement.

MORE: ‘Can We Take a Joke?’ tells college students why they need Lenny Bruce

IMAGE: Teacher Dude/Flickr

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.