The following email was sent to the Washington College community yesterday evening by President Kurt Landgraf to respond to criticism that the liberal arts institution had censured freedom of artistic expression by cancelling a student production of the play entitled “The Foreigner.”
Dear Campus Community,
Last Friday, we announced a decision to cancel two scheduled public performances of “The Foreigner.” This play—written in the 1980s and frequently produced at educational and professional institutions across the country—centers on a group of people who feel “othered” by society in various ways, including premarital pregnancy, neurological differences, and age. Over the course of the play, these individuals build a community together through listening, learning and, humor, but their bond is threatened by the xenophobic anger and self-proclaimed entitlement of two other characters. In the climax of the play, the community of disenfranchised protagonists rises up to easily defeat the bigoted antagonists (who reveal themselves as members of the KKK). It is through the portrayal and defeat of these villainous characters that the play conveys its message about the evils of xenophobia, the dangers of “othering,” and the importance of empathy.
We made the decision to cancel the performances after listening to members of our campus community who told us that they were deeply hurt and affronted by the existence and portrayal of characters associated with the KKK—even though these characters are clearly portrayed as villains and are easily vanquished by the play’s protagonists. Our intent in cancelling the production was to prevent further harm to members of our community who already feel marginalized. However, the decision to cancel the play has been interpreted by some as a form of censorship on the part of the College. Censorship is anathema to the core values of Washington College, and this was never our intent.
It is our job, as a liberal arts institution, to create a space where difficult issues can be faced head-on and thoughtfully discussed. The production and subsequent cancellation of this play have raised important questions about how we, as an institution, choose, contextualize, and discuss potentially controversial material—on our stages, in our classrooms, and beyond. To that end, we are currently discussing how we can best present the story and message of this play in a way that enables the campus community to have a productive, thoughtful conversation. We will work with all of the relevant student groups, staff, faculty, alumni, and Board of Visitors and Governors to determine the best way to accomplish this and to find the most constructive path forward.
President Kurt Landgraf