Updated: Last week’s decision by Washington College Provost Patrice DiQuinzio to cancel a student directed performance of The Foreigner, a widely performed comedy by acclaimed playwright Larry Shue, has set social media ablaze with outcries of censorship from alumni, former faculty and members of the arts community.
“Quashing a play, a book, a parade, a speech is indeed censorship,” said Skip Middleton, a 1987 graduate of the drama department at Washington College and a Kent County native. “There’s zero difference between censorship by a school board, a government, or a student body.”
In a letter to faculty and staff last week, DiQuinzio and Student Affairs Vice-President Sarah Feyerherm said the play’s depictions of Ku Klux Klan villains “In white hoods and robes” were “deeply upsetting to some.”
The administration had the final say and overruled the drama department.
Update: In a brief call after this story ran, WC President Kurt Landgraf and Communications Director Wendy Clarke denied that the decision was unilateral on the part of the administration. Clark said the drama department also agreed that the performance should be canceled.
The performance was a senior project for the student director, who was not included in the discussion to cancel the performance.
On Tuesday, the student director and the acting department chair sent out emails to Student Affairs and Public Safety to inform the student body about the play’s “sensitive content.” The play was also advertised on the college website with a content warning, “This play features portrayals of xenophobia and prejudice.”
Middleton said the best way to handle the depictions of prejudice could have been a focus session after the performance.
Instead, the cast and crew learned at Thursday’s dress rehearsal that the public performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday would be canceled. The dress rehearsal went on but it was closed to members of the public.
DiQuinzio and Feyerherm wrote that the cancellation did 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.”
This did not deter Middleton in his rebuke of the decision. He rattled off 20 names of alumni “making their living in a non-censored world, in the Arts, who hold the WC Community and Admin to a higher standard than this… While I don’t speak for all of them, they are most likely not impressed…”
Middleton said the decision so close to Veterans Day diminishes those whose service “is built primarily on defending the First Amendment.”
He said the play had been on the schedule for quite a while and the decision sends a bad message across the institution, the arts community and among prospective students.
“How do you tell a current student, or a prospective student, or alum, community members and the like that a play has been canceled due to the sensitivity of the message?” he said. “How do you tell the cast and their parents, that the play cannot go on? How do you spin this regionally when you’re trying to gain headcount in the student body to shore up a suffering institution?
Attempts to reach Washington College Provost Patrice DiQuinzio went unanswered by the time this story ran.
Performances of The Foreigner on college campuses are not unusual.
Feature image by Morgan Lewis, Flickr