Brandeis University canceled the on-campus performance of a play about comedian Lenny Bruce, called “Buyer Beware,” after students and alumni criticized its depiction of black characters and the Black Lives Matter movement. The author decided to have it produced professionally off-campus instead.
Lenny Bruce was an American comedian and social critic who was active from 1947 until 1966, when he died at age 40 from a drug overdose. He was well-known for incorporating contentious topics like politics and sex into his comedy routines, which often took the form of stream-of-consciousness diatribes. He was also considered a Free Speech advocate, who was arrested on multiple occasions for alleged obscenity in his performances. After a trial in 1964, he was convicted of obscenity in a New York court for the first time and was sentenced to four months in a workhouse. He was freed on bail during the appeals process, however, and died before the appeal was decided, never having served any of his sentence. He was posthumously pardoned in 2003 by then-Governor George Pataki of New York.
Michael Weller is a 1965 Brandeis graduate who wrote “Buyer Beware” and more than 40 other plays. He was being honored with the university’s Creative Arts Award, and wrote this play while completing a residency at Brandeis, where the Lenny Bruce archives are housed. He dismissed criticisms of the work, saying in an interview that students “just don’t know how to read a play.” He added that he “was trying to show a broad cross-section of people under a lot of pressure.”
“Buyer Beware” was originally scheduled to premiere at Brandeis on October 2, 2017, and run through October 6. According to The Brandeis Hoot, the play is about “the modern atmosphere of college protest movements at Brandeis.” “Buyer Beware” depicts a white Brandeis student named Ron listening to recordings of Bruce’s stand-up and repeating lines that contain the n-word and other racial slurs. The fictional Ron wants to perform a routine in the manner of Bruce’s comedy, but he is threatened with academic probation by the Brandeis administration. At the end of the play, Ron performs his stand-up despite student protests.
Andrew Child, a Brandeis theater student opposed to “Buyer Beware,” told The Boston Globe that he felt the play’s portrayal of its black characters was “ridiculous and vicious.” In an interview with WBUR, he said, “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. The white male protagonist, his whole story line was fleshed out and well thought out and carefully constructed.” According to the Globe, Child and other students familiar with the movement thought “Weller’s portrayal of Black Lives Matter read like an angry, Breitbart-esque caricature.”
Brandeis released a statement which explained that theater faculty members had “considered the challenging issues” the play raised, and concluded that “more time was needed to produce the play appropriately, and that its performance on campus should go hand-in-hand with more robust educational programming.” The statement also quoted Weller, who said that “rehearsals of the play, and growing sentiment among some students in the theater department, might not be conducive to the creative atmosphere desired for a premiere presentation of a new work.” Weller decided to have the play produced off-campus.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to Brandeis, expressing its concern over the university’s decision to “censor” the play. It read, in part:
“Americans have since recognized the injustices dealt to Bruce. He was the last comedian to be criminally prosecuted for obscenity in the United States. Today, Bruce is revered as a champion of free speech and First Amendment principles — so much so that he was posthumously pardoned by New York Governor George Pataki in 2003. His life story serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when we censor artistic expression.
“Given this history, the undersigned are sensitive to the possibility that Bruce’s words may again be censored. Our unease is amplified by the fact that such censorship may occur at Brandeis University, named after the staunch free speech advocate and United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Our concern is all the greater insofar as the university is the institutional custodian of the Lenny Bruce archives and much of Bruce’s legacy.”
FIRE’s letter was signed by Bruce’s daughter, Kitty, who founded the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, and a group of other “free speech advocates with a resilient interest in comedian Lenny Bruce’s life and legacy.”
University Cancels Play, Author Chooses to Premiere it Off-Campus
Brandeis announced that the performance of “Buyer Beware” would be canceled. Michael Weller, the author, ultimately withdrew the work and decided to have it performed by professional actors.
Prepared by Graham Piro ‘18
Uploaded April 9, 2018
Updated March 14, 2019