Cal State Long Beach students, professors and community residents participated in a discussion panel at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Sept. 29.
The event, called “In Context: Art, Race and Censorship,” allowed panelists to discuss the cancellation of the play “N*gger, W*tback, Ch*nk” and related it to the intersections of art, race and censorship. [related title=”Related Stories” stories=”40386,40214″ align=”left” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”]
The panel was prompted by the College of the Arts Dean, Cyrus Parker-Jeanette, who said she worked closely with former executive director of CPAC, Michele Roberge, while N*W*C was being held at the center.
N*W*C was cancelled in early September by CSULB President Jane Close Conoley after ethnic studies faculty members voiced negative feedback toward the content of the play and its ability to inspire progressive conversations about race. The panel was followed by a discussion that gave students and community members the opportunity to discuss the cancellation and their opinions about it.
Subsequent to the incident, many social media users said that the cancellation was an act of censorship, while ethnic studies faculty members retained that the play had no place in conversations about race.
Catha Paquette, an art historian, writer and member of CSULB’s Faculty of Art, spoke on the censorship debate at hand.
She said that as university educators, censorship isn’t ideal but in an academic environment, there is a responsibility to protect the students and facilitate learning in a way that is respectful of the artists showing their art and respectful to the students who will be an audience.
Paquette also mentioned that the cancellation of the play was influenced by a lack of proper advertising after Roberge booked the show.
As soon as the discussion was turned over to the audience, Roberge took the floor to contest points made.
“Catha, you are a wonderful human being, but you don’t have the story correct,” Roberge said.
“I guess that’s part of the problem,” Paquette replied.
A few Associated Students Inc. members took the opportunity to explain why they chose to support the play when it was first showcased in the fall 2015 semester.
“The reason why ASI had supported the play is because we thought we were supporting an institution that was supposed to be an intersectional and educational experience for our students,” ASI Vice President Logan Vournas said. [pullquote speaker=”Cyrus Parker-Jeanette, dean of CSULB’s College of the Arts” photo=”” align=”left” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”]I have hope that we’re going to be OK. The beautiful thing is that this conversation doesn’t end here. This conversation starts here.[/pullquote]
Jaye Austin Williams, assistant professor in the Theatre Arts Department, said that there is not a definitive answer to whether or not it was a good idea to cancel the play.
“I think it’s layered and complex, because what you have is a series of reflexes that are dynamically in play,” she said. “You have this relationship between people of color and our allies and that relationship is very complicated.”
Williams further explained that even though member of different minority communities might have certain hardships in common, most struggles minority groups experience still have to be taken in on their own terms.
The conversation of trigger warnings in art and safe spaces at university campuses rose between the panelists, as well as the importance and function of allies in marginalized communities.
Allies are people from majority groups that help minority groups advocate for the minority’s agenda.
A trigger warning is a statement placed at the start of any given content that can potentially offend or disturb the audience. Additionally, safe spaces are places where anyone can relax and express themselves without any fear of uncomfortability or being unwelcomed such as the discussion panel on the cancellation of N*W*C.
“Very often there’s this idea that a safe space means that nobody can say anything that makes anybody uncomfortable and that is not the case,” said Shefali Mistry, public relations and marketing coordinator at CSULB University Art Museum. “Often, safe spaces get co-opted by allies. The most important role of an ally is to shut up. The role of an ally is to listen and to find in what way is best to help.”
As allies in the university were attempting go forward with the play, they had to make sure to do it in most respectful and culturally sensitive way possible.
“The vice president of student affairs [Carmen Taylor] would not allow me to advertise the play in the dorms,” Roberge said. “We worked diligently to talk to ethnic faculty members so that they could participate in N*W*C, and there was no gracious participation.”
Parker-Jeanette said she worked closely with Roberge in order to increase the relevance of the play and advocate for its positive return.
The plans included presenting racial topics through separate platforms to aid in interpreting N*W*C, such as panel presentations and film screenings, according to Parker-Jeanette.
However, the play was still heavily discouraged by faculty after these alternative plans were presented. Parker-Jeanette said that when she shared the input she received with Conoley, “cancellation was determined.”
“ASI representatives went to see the play last year and described to me, a white person, that as students of color, the play was an uncomfortable setting,” Vournas said. “We were supporting an institution that did not serve the experiences we once thought it would.”
CSULB grad student Olivia Sather said she was interested in exploring the dialogue between the panelists and the audience.
“I think that this is a complicated issue,” Sather said. “I think that it was good for our community to have this dialogue. But I also think that this is about listening and figuring out how as a community, we can work things together. As a white person, I think it is important to listen.”
Opening that dialogue is one of the positives that Parker-Jeannette credits to the cancellation.
“I have hope that we’re going to be OK,” Parker-Jeanette said. “The beautiful thing is that this conversation doesn’t end here. This conversation starts here.”
Miranda Andrade-Ceja contributed to this story.