Theater faculty at Knox College canceled a school production of “The Good Person of Szechwan” after student protesters claimed the play employs negative stereotypes of Asian women, and accused the theater department of “whitewashing,” or casting white students to play characters who are people of color.
Neil Blackadder is a theater professor at Knox College, located in the city of Galesburg in western Illinois. He announced in early 2017 that he would be directing “The Good Person of Szechwan” later that year. He reportedly had planned on updating the location of the play to a European setting. Sophomore Joel Willison criticized this decision, saying, “It’s a play that’s set in China. What Neil is doing, as far as I understand, is taking that and moving that to a Europe centralized setting. Which then makes sure all the characters could be white,” The Knox Student reported. Blackadder defended his decision by calling the location of the play “irrelevant,” and he disputed students’ claims that the theater department had whitewashed its productions. He told the Student, “If that’s happened, it’s only happened in extreme circumstances which is to say we couldn’t come up with any other way to do it, but I’m not sure that that’s happened.” Blackadder said the department tries to cast students of color in roles for people of color whenever possible.
Jayel Gant and Willa Coufal are both seniors at Knox College, and both women of color who felt uncomfortable with the play’s representation of Asian women. They organized an open forum on November 1, 2017, for students and faculty to discuss the contents of the play.
“The Good Person of Szechwan,” written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1941, is set in the Chinese city of Sichuan. It is a parable about love as a commodity, and follows Shen Teh, a sex worker who shelters a group of gods for a night and is rewarded with riches for her good deed. Afterward, she is driven to adopt a male alter-ego, Shui Ta, in order to muster the necessary ruthlessness to deal successfully with the business of her tobacco shop.
Coufal, a former student of Blackadder’s, told the Student that she was “uncomfortable” with the play, which she had studied in a foundational theater class two years previously. She said it depends on “historical depictions of asians on the stage,” and contains “stereotypes of Asian women that were being formulated and continue to affect women like me today.”
Blackadder wondered why the students waited so long to raise their objections about the play, the Student reported. “[I]t’s been hard for me that this play we announced we were gonna do as long ago as last spring, April, there’s now been all this opposition to it in the last three days, and I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for the production,” he said. Gant and Coufal both acknowledged that a long period of time had passed between the announcement of the play and the forum. “We did a lot of growing this summer in terms of just learning to talk about social justice in the academic sense and in terms of being put in contact with faculty from other departments,” Coufal said. Both claimed there was precedent for their complaints about the theater department’s treatment of race. Gant pointed to the fact that white students were cast in non-white roles in a previous production of “Mosque Alert,” a contemporary play by Jamil Khoury.
The Student published an editorial in support of the decision to cancel the play. It read, in part, “Students of color have time and time again expressed their concerns about the department’s tendency to stereotype, tokenize and demean minority groups. This treatment of students must stop and can only be stopped by the professors taking the time to actively listen to their students.”
Peter Bailley, a spokesperson for Knox, told the Fix that the play had been canceled because of its “troublesome portrayals of women and individuals of Asian origin.” He also said campus leaders are “proud of the open dialog between our students and faculty, which addressed important issues and concerns that frame our faculty’s teaching.”
Elizabeth Carlin Metz, chair of the Knox theater department, told the Fix that she believed the cancellation needed to happen because “academia needs continually to be vigilant about the shifting nuances in addressing sensitive texts.” She continued, “We need to acknowledge privilege in all sectors and the inherent bias that ensues. And we all need to listen.” Rather than blaming the students for being intolerant, Metz told Inside Higher Ed that the faculty had missed “a teaching moment.”
Not everyone at Knox agreed with the decision to cancel the play, however. Emily Anderson, an associate professor of English, wrote a letter to the editor of the Student in which she argued, “There is plenty to criticize in Brecht’s plays, but we can’t criticize them if we haven’t seen them. There may have been plenty to criticize in this production of The Good Person of Szechwan, but as it will not be produced, we will be unable to criticize it.” She continued, “If the only people who can produce, cast, or perform in a play are those who share the social and cultural identities of its characters, every main-stage production will be some version of Death of a Salesman.”
Second play canceled later that term
In January 2018, a second play slated for production in the Knox theater department was canceled. This play, “Fix me, Jesus,” was to be directed by a student, senior Zak Metalskey. It is set in Dallas in the 1980s, and Metalsky told the Student he chose it because he thought it confronted social and political issues in a constructive way. However, a member of the cast thought her character was excessively racist, and quit the play because of it. This prompted a discussion between Metalsky and the rest of the cast and crew, many of whom also expressed their discomfort with the way “Fix me, Jesus” addresses race.. He made the decision to cancel the production.
Metalsky said he was disappointed, but he understood. He told the Student, “This wasn’t censorship of free speech. We had an honest dialogue where we could honestly hear everyone’s opinions on the matter. I think this somewhat relates to the ‘calling out nature’ that is on campuses. Calling out is a good thing. As people in an educational setting, we should want to be called out if we do something that is harmful to others. We should see being called out as an opportunity to reflect and change and do more good for the world.”
Prepared by Graham Piro, ‘18
Uploaded May 21, 2018