By Cassy Sottile
The Washington College administration, in collaboration with the Department of Theatre and Dance, canceled a senior capstone production of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner,” which was scheduled to hold performances on Nov. 8 and 9.
Out of a desire to prevent further injury to members of the WC community who already feel marginalized, Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Laura Eckelman decided to cancel the public performances. The decision was made on the evening of Nov. 7, approximately one hour before the play’s final dress rehearsal.
Senior Megan Stagg, the production’s director, was first attracted to the show 23 months ago.
“I was first drawn to the big idea the show was trying to get across to audiences — that not everyone is who they claim to be and do not feel like they fit in all the time,” Stagg said.
This idea of “othering” is a major plot point of the show, according to Stagg.
“The Foreigner” centers on a group of people who feel “othered” by society in various ways, including premarital pregnancy, neurological differences, and age. According to an email sent by the president’s office on Nov. 11, over the course of the play, these individuals build a community through listening, learning, and humor, but their bond is threatened by the xenophobic anger and self-proclaimed entitlement of two other characters.
The play contains some elements that students and staff found particularly offensive, according to Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm and Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Patrice DiQuinzio.
The climax of the play features the “disenfranchised protagonists” defeating characters who appear in Klu Klux Klan robes and are clearly set up as the antagonists.
In preparation for this reveal, Eckelman sent an email with the script attached on Nov. 6 and 7 to Student Affairs, the Department of Public Safety, and Counseling Services. Feyerherm and DiQuinzio were off-campus until the morning of Nov. 6.
“Prior to the email, there was no awareness about the content of the play outside the theatre department,” Feyerherm said.
Due to the condensed timeline for the decision, Stagg was not included in the conversation about canceling the play.
“We touched base with various constituencies about the content of the play before making the decision,” Dean DiQuinzio said.
Dean DiQuinzio herself did not read the script, but did attend the closed dress rehearsal of the production on Nov. 7 to understand the show as Stagg and the department intended it.
“We discussed many possible interventions that might help to address their concerns, including public content warnings, alterations to the KKK costumes, and a moderated public discussion after each performance, but were unable to find a satisfactory compromise,” Eckelman said.
In the days leading up to the decision, a series of three meetings were held which involved Eckelman, DiQuinzio, Feyerherm, Associate Professor of Theatre Brendon Fox, three staff members, five to 10 students, and Director of College Communications Wendy Clarke.
“As an artist and an educator, I believe fervently in the value of theatre as an engine for empathy, a tool for social change, and a vehicle for encouraging difficult conversations,” Eckelman said. “But I also feel a personal, social, and professional responsibility to treat my neighbors with as much care, respect, and compassion as I possibly can.”
The post-show discussion panel that was supposed to take place after the Friday performance of the show, led by dramaturg junior Will Reid, was also canceled.
The discussion panel was set to address the appearance of the KKK members onstage and how the team approached this, according to Reid.
“[The department] could have done a better job at including constituencies on campus to understand the content of the play and converse about it,” Landgraf said.
To discuss the decision with groups on campus, Landgraf and Feyerherm attended the Student Government Association Senate session on Nov. 12 and Landgraf had dinner with the SGA class officers.
According to SGA Secretary of Diversity junior Felicia Attor, the play affected everyone on campus.
“Understandably, this play is a comedy and more than 23 months of work went into it, which can never be disputed. However, putting the KKK on stage in a satirical way is not appropriate because nothing about the historical and present day ramifications of the KKK is funny,” Attor said.
Confederate flags are seen in Kent County frequently, according to Attor.
Students on campus still face overt and subtle forms of racism from people in the community and on campus.
“This is about acknowledging the need for all, not some, students to feel safe on this campus,” Attor said.
The Elm reached out to other student groups involved in the decision to cancel the production, but received no reply.
According to Clarke, students with marginalized identities made up around 10% of campus in 2010. This figure has increased to approximately 21.3% in 2019.
“This represents a cultural shift in demographics across the country that WC is responsible to maintain,” Landgraf said.
The College strives to be a community that prioritizes inclusiveness and the ability to articulate one’s perspective with an effort toward finding greater understanding, affecting positive change, and strengthening communication, according to the Nov. 8 Provost email.
“Part of what is difficult about this situation is the need for us — as individuals and as an institution — to balance our desire for equity, diversity, and inclusion with our responsibility to challenge, to teach, and to encourage progress,” Eckelman said.
In the wake of the announcement of the cancellation of the play, the Chestertown Spy published a Nov. 11 article claiming the decision was an act of censorship.
“This was not an act of censorship,” Landgraf said. “The campus was not prepared for the content of the show, and the decision was made to be respectful of our student populations.”
“The Foreigner” has been performed on other college campuses across the country, such as Indiana University in July 2018 and Virginia Tech in Feb. 2019. According to Landgraf, colleges should not be censoring any speaker or production because content is controversial.
“I do not see this as an act of censorship. I view censorship as being shut down against your will. This was a course correction made by and with the theatre department,” Eckelman said.
The Chestertown Spy also published two open letters to the College administration — one from Timothy Abbott and the other from Talya Leodari — both addressing perceived censorship of the show and scheduled post-show discussion panel.
“There have been arguments made that [we] made the wrong decision based on the First Amendment and freedom of expression. However, we do have the right to say something, but we should exercise good judgment in how we say it,” Dean DiQuinzio said.
In the aftermath of the decision, several members of “The Foreigner” team received negative messages on social media, according to Stagg.
“I have received a couple messages online calling me a racist for being a part of the show,” one cast member said.
Stagg first reported the messages her cast has received to the Department of Public Safety. Since then, a Department of Public Safety officer has reached out to the cast who have received negative comments, according to Associate Director of the Department of Public Safety Sue Golinski.
Any negative messages received are being reported to Public Safety and Student Affairs.
“This show is about giving a voice to the voiceless and we have been undermined and received hate for it through the cancelation,” Reid said.
In addition to some receiving messages accusing them of racial bias, some of the company members experienced accusations of silencing others.
“While talking about the decision, someone told me that they were tired of being silenced. As I was leaving the conversation, upset, I heard them say that I was wrong and did not respect that person,” one company member said.
If any student needs to report a message or interaction of concern, they should contact Public Safety at 410-778-7810, as well as Student Affairs.
Moving forward, the College administration and Department of Theatre and Dance are looking into the possibility of some kind of presentation of the play that is inclusive to the whole campus population. The presentation will include those directly involved and the groups of people who need to have input, according to Dean DiQuinzio and Feyerherm.
“We will not train the next generation of citizen leaders by avoiding hard conversations, but we also will not do it by ignoring each other’s pain,” Eckelman said.
This presentation will most likely be next semester.
“The play is about the importance of empathy in easy and difficult situations. This show was produced and canceled out of empathy,” Eckelman said. “I believe — and hope — that these events will provoke some much-needed conversations (on our campus and beyond) about intercultural sensitivity, content warnings, and academic freedom.”