Student theater production cancellation: the playwright’s perspective

Image courtesy of City Theater Company in Wilmington, Del.

Each year the college produces a fall play for the entertainment and edification of its acting students and the larger college community. This year my award-winning farce “After Birth of a Nation” was chosen by Stephen Smith, drama department leader and director, for a November run. Yet after recent controversy surrounding the play’s themes, images, and language, Steve and I have mutually agreed to withdraw the play from production. Sadly, the play was pre-judged before it could be fully realized on stage; therefore, we were faced with the extra pressure of overcoming misguided, distorted, and altogether inaccurate preconceptions.

Set at the White House in 1915, “After Birth of a Nation” follows Margaret Wilson, eldest child of President Woodrow Wilson. Her mother is dead, and she must “play the part” of White House hostess at a screening of the infamous American epic “The Birth of a Nation.” In the movie, the nation’s first box office blockbuster, white actors don the blackface of minstrelsy, African Americans are insulted and scorned, and the rousing spectacle climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding into to “save the day” and rescuing the virginal white heroine from the evil clutches of a bi-racial politician. Yes, that’s the plot of the movie. I kid you not. (It’s free on YouTube.)

Chris Banker and Jim Burns becoming friends in “After Birth of a Nation” at City Theater Co. in Wilmington, Del by playwright David Robson. Photo by Joe del Tufo / Moonloop Photography, Courtesy of City Theater Co.

In the play, though, Margaret’s is a journey to self-hood. The play’s one character of color, Mr. Fields, at first appears to be a shuffling “Negro” servant, so terribly common in pop culture portrayals of African Americans at the time. Throughout, Fields and Margaret are pestered, bullied, and underestimated by a bigoted president (who in real-life re-segregated the Federal workforce) and a famous movie director (who grew up poor in the Reconstruction-era South). Margaret and Fields battle the racists and misogynists and, after many zany, slapstick hijinks and plot twists, end the play triumphant—the undeniable future of our great country.

Do the play’s characters use some of the racist language and tropes of the early 20th century? Yes. Are the racists severely limited and ignorant in their understanding of people of color and women? Yes. Are said bigots made out to be narrow-minded buffoons driven by fear, greed, insecurity, and tribalism? Indeed, they are. But a comedy that portrays racist characters is not to be confused with a racist play. The presentation of sexist actions and attitudes in the service of plot and provocation is not automatically a sexist play.

Diversity has only strengthened DCCC, allowing us to engage, discuss, and sometimes even confront persistent issues like the kind my play addresses.

– David Robson

The recognition that African Americans were once, and still are, often branded with the ugliest of stereotypes and epithets should not suggest that a play’s purpose is the denigration of African Americans.

The guy who wrote the play—that’s me—came to Delaware County Community College in the early 1990s as an adjunct instructor, and from the moment I walked in the front door of what is now the Academic Building I felt at home. I recognized, even then, the institution’s dedication to student needs and success. At the time, the college was far less diverse than today, in all sorts of ways. Diversity has only strengthened DCCC, allowing us to engage, discuss, and sometimes even confront persistent issues like the kind my play addresses.

Over the years, our work as teachers and artists has shown that while Steve and I don’t shy away from provocative subject matter, we are responsible teachers and artists who can be trusted to present controversial subjects in the most inclusive and respectful of manners. As we say at the college, we’re always trying to find and build “teachable moments.”

“After Birth of a Nation” by playwright David Robson at City Theater Company in Wilmington, Del. Photo by Joe del Tufo / Moonloop Photography, Courtesy of City Theater Co.

Yet I’ve recently been told by colleagues that our students just won’t “get the play,” that, somehow, they’re not intellectually mature or historically knowledgeable enough to handle the kinds of issues that they, tragically, see played out in the news every day of the week. I strongly disagree.

As a professional playwright, I know that productions of my work will come and go, but my excitement in producing “After Birth” here wasn’t about the production itself; it was that I’d get to combine two of my great loves: teaching and writing. Alas, it is not to be.

The good news, after all the real-life drama of the last weeks and our cancelling of the play, is that art, ultimately, wins. “After Birth’s” sold-out run two years ago, along with its upcoming productions, testify to the power of humor to challenge humankind’s darkest impulses. Fifty years ago, comedy genius Mel Brooks decided that one of the best ways to fight totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and racism was satire, spoof, mockery and farce.

His 1967 film “The Producers” contains a song titled “Springtime for Hitler” and portrays Germany’s genocidal former chancellor as a spaced-out, cannabis-smoking hippie. “If you can make fun of him,” Brooks said, “if you can have people laugh at him, you win.”

David Robson, a professor of English at DCCC, is an award-winning playwright and the recipient of the college’s Gould Award in 2010.

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