Your outrageous decision to cancel the senior capstone production of the award-winning play ‘The Foreigner” at the very moment that the students were about to perform the dress rehearsal was rash, ill-justified and shameful, bringing dishonor to yourselves and to the academic institution that you represent. I am writing to you, and copying the President of the College and the Chair of the Board of Visitors & Governors, to demand a public apology to the theater students and faculty who have been traumatized and victimized by your actions.
Your November 8, 2019 email to parents and the all-campus email that preceded it only compounded your error and illustrate that your actions were made in ignorance and in haste. You were unfamiliar with the play and cannot have taken the time to read and discuss it with those in the theater department who have, or to understand the way that the issues it raises about bigotry and intolerance are addressed in this production. You have now joined a single institution – a high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – in censoring and cancelling production of Larry Shue’s award-winning play, which continues to win acclaim for its numerous revivals since its Off-Broadway debut in November 1984.
Your glib statement that parents should understand your decision in the larger context of an ongoing and evolving effort “to be a community that prioritizes inclusiveness and the ability to articulate one’s perspective with an effort toward finding greater understanding, effecting positive change, and strengthening communication among all of our students, staff, and faculty” is belied by your cowardice and refusal to recognize this as precisely the kind of teaching moment that could have created the “brave space” that would advance those ideals. Instead, you gutted a segment of your community – my daughter among them – and made them targets of uninformed accusations of racism from those who objected to the play and who now associate them with racist ideas simply for being part of this manifestly not racist production. You privileged “Callout Culture” and denied members of your community the opportunity to constructively engage with difficult or uncomfortable ideas. Shame on you!
Your assertion that your act of censorship “does not diminish the months of hard work, collaboration, emotion, and thoughtfulness that students invested in the production—nor does it lessen all that they have learned through those efforts” is grossly disingenuous. What they have learned may indeed be valuable, but it is not the sort of lesson that a responsible institution of higher learning would seek to engender. They have learned that their voices do not matter, for they were not among the “members of the student community” with whom you claim to have consulted. They have learned that they may be subject to the whim of arbitrary and capricious authority. They have learned that their investment in a college-sanctioned theater production can be undone whenever a community voice objects to any of its content. They have learned that they will not be protected from the backlash that your decision has empowered.
You compelled your faculty colleagues to cancel the play while the students and director were on stage for the dress rehearsal, and stood silently watching their grief and distress. You did nothing to comfort them. You did nothing to address their pain. Your only concession was to allow a closed performance of the dress rehearsal, and neither of you congratulated them on their performance. You did not even offer to come and help them strike the set. You did nothing to anticipate or ameliorate the trauma that you have caused. Your belated meeting with the director and cast on Saturday only elicited an apology from you when they told you they needed one.
I call it cowardice. I call it cruel. I call it censorship and abuse of power. I call it intellectually dishonest and a mockery of the educational and community values you cite and that Washington College purports to espouse. This is your mess to clean up. Do not sweep it under the rug. Own what you have done and apologize publicly for the unintended but undeniable harm you have caused.
Timothy B. Abbott
CC: Chair Stephen T. Golding
President Kurt Landgraf