Brandeis Cancels Staging Of Play After Students Oppose Its 'Wallpaper' Minority Characters

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A sign marks the entrance of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. in 2010. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
A sign marks the entrance of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. in 2010. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

A noted alumnus of Brandeis University whom the school is about to honor with a Creative Arts Award says the school did not consult him before canceling the production of a play he wrote for the theater department.

Michael Weller graduated from Brandeis in 1965, and today, many theater students recognize his work.

Theater major Josh Rubinstein had hoped to audition for Weller's latest play, "Buyer Beware."

"One of his first plays was 'Moonchildren,' which is a play written about his Brandeis experiences," Rubinstein said.

That play earned Weller a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright. Rubinstein said that work was the beginning of an illustrious career.

"He went on to do a lot of really cool things," Rubinstein said. "Like, he wrote the screenplay for the 1979 film adaptation of [the musical] 'Hair.' "

Rubinstein was excited that Weller had come back to write "Buyer Beware" for the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts. He said the play is about a student who doesn't feel he has a voice.

But, Rubinstein said, the characters were stereotypes.

"A lot of the students had issues with that," Rubinstein said. "This doesn't represent us. It was called racist in certain situations by a couple different students."

Brandeis' student newspaper, The Hoot, sums up the play's plot:

"Buyer Beware" deals with the modern atmosphere of college protest movements at Brandeis. In the play, a white college student wants to use the n-word in a comedy routine, which spurs on a national movement for Black Lives Matter.

The newspaper also provides additional details about the play's white protagonist, his controversial attempts to be satirical in the style of comic Lenny Bruce, including repeatedly using the n-word intending to lessen its harmfulness. The play involves the pushback he receives from the university and his peers.

Student opposition to staging the play was led by theater major Andrew Child. He objected to the way some characters appeared to him to be more developed than others.

"There are black characters who are written clearly by an older white person who doesn't really understand the nuances of the Black Lives Matter movement," Child said. "The white male protagonist, his whole story line was fleshed out and well thought out and carefully constructed."

Theater major Sara Kenney echoed Child's objections, agreeing that some of the characters — primarily the non-white characters — lacked depth.

"And then minorities, women kind of became wallpaper, [they] didn't have character arcs, [they] were just there to serve this one kid in the script," said Kenney.

The playwright declined a recorded interview because, he said, he doesn't like to talk about his plays until they've been staged — only then, he said, do they "become plays."

Playwright Michael Weller poses in New York City on Feb. 22, 1988. (Rene Perez/AP)
Playwright Michael Weller poses in New York City on Feb. 22, 1988. (Rene Perez/AP)

Weller, however, said the students who object to staging the play "just don't know how to read a play." He said in "Buyer Beware," he "was trying to show a broad cross-section of people under a lot of pressure."

Theater faculty members referred all questions to the Brandeis administration. University spokesman Ira Jackson explained the decision not to stage the play.

"The decision, I think, was reached after engaging a discussion between the faculty and students and the playwright about the most effective way for the issues in the play to be explored," Jackson said.

He said the department will offer a course in the spring that will cover the issues raised by Weller's play, and Brandeis will honor Weller in January.

Weller doesn't see it that way though.

"That's false," Weller said. "Since I delivered the play, I haven't heard from the theater department."

Weller added that he now has no choice but to seek a professional production company to stage the play.

"I just hope that there is a chance for the kids who haven't seen the play at Brandeis to see it," he said.

Weller called the handling of the decision not to produce the play at Brandeis "a dangerous and corrosive way" to deal with the creation of a play.

"I wanted to give it to the school," Weller said. "I'm personally heartbroken."

This article was originally published on November 02, 2017.

This segment aired on November 2, 2017.


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Fred Thys Reporter
Fred Thys reported on politics and higher education for WBUR.



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