Native American high school students, participants in a summer institute at the University of Wyoming (UW), walked out of a performance of “The Fantasticks” in protest. The students took offense at the villainization of Native American characters in one scene and at what they perceived as an overly casual use of the word “rape” in a portion of dialogue. After they walked out, the UW United Multicultural Council (UMC) complained, and the university’s Department of Theatre and Dance made edits to their rendition of the play.
Tim Nichols, husband of UW President Laurie Nichols, was essential in setting up UW’s Native American Summer Institute. He attended the play the night of the walkout, and afterward said that while he recognized the play was a period piece written in the 1960s, and therefore included some derogatory attitudes typical of the time, its performance was nonetheless inappropriate today. However, Nichols said that he believed the play did not entirely undo the progress the institute had made.
UMC Co-President Tyler Wolfgang authored the group’s statement regarding the performance, complaining that the production perpetuated outdated and offensive stereotypes of Native Americans and Latinos/Hispanics.
After the walkout, actors in the UW production worked to re-tool offensive moments in the play. The Department of Theatre and Dance included an insert in the program for future performances explaining the cultural context in which the show had been written and preparing audience members for certain awkward moments. The department also issued a statement published in The Laramie Boomerang, explaining that the use of Native Americans as stock caricature villains is unacceptable, but reflects attitudes prevalent in the 1960s when “The Fantasticks” was first performed. The statement goes on to address the play’s use of the word “rape,” clarifying that its use in a particular song title actually corresponds with an outdated definition that referred to an abduction; furthermore, it said, the line that mentions the “Rape of the Sabine Women” is an allusion to an incident from Roman mythology. On the whole, the statement acknowledged that the department had failed to prepare audiences for what they were going to watch.
The walkout also inspired editorials and opinion pieces in Wyoming newspapers. In The Casper Star Tribune, professional playwright James Olm wrote that the incident opened his eyes to his own “whitewashed perspective” of theatre. He did, however, also express his disappointment at the university’s decision to cancel the production’s four-stop tour through the state. Bob Bonnar, editor of the News Letter Journal, wrote that the university’s response to the walkout silenced art in the name of diversity.
The incident prompted strong responses from community members on social media. Some said they understood the department’s decision to amend the play, but that a preemptive explanation of the context in which the show was written should have been the first strategy employed. Others were angry at the students’ decision to walk out of the performance, saying that their actions clearly belied a lack of willingness to understand the show.
“The Fantasticks” edited, tour dates cancelled
After Native American students walked out of the play, production staff worked to amend certain portions of it so future audiences would find it less offensive. The university cancelled the production’s tour dates in other parts of the state.
Prepared by Chris Castano ‘16
December 7, 2017