The College’s recent debate over Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod’s ’81 canceled play The Good Samaritan grew into a nationwide conversation after national and far-right media outlets picked the story up this week.
As people off campus criticize students’ reactions to the play, many in the Kenyon community are asking how to expand the conversation beyond The Good Samaritan. Some expressed a desire to build the controversy into a productive dialogue about race, representation, immigration and freedom of expression.
“My hope is that we will actually use this play as a way to learn about issues of difference, particularly immigration, not as a topic of gossip and drama, but instead as a topic of real human people,” Assistant Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Jacky Neri Arias ’13 said.
MacLeod canceled the premiere of her latest play on Jan. 31 after it was widely criticized for its representation of an undocumented Guatemalan minor.
The Good Samaritan was scheduled to premiere April 5 at the Bolton Theater. Though the administration stood behind MacLeod’s right to stage the play under the “freedom of expression” clause, she canceled the play of her volition, according to her Jan. 31 announcement.
President Sean Decatur announced in a Feb. 7 news bulletin that he asked members of the College’s senior staff to gather a group of faculty, staff and students to propose concrete action following last week’s controversy.
“The past 10 days or so have been a reminder of how even though we often think of community at Kenyon as being an exception, Kenyon is very much part of the broader world,” Decatur said in an interview with the Collegian. “All of the issues and challenges we face in the broader world are faced here.”
More than 150 people attended the Feb. 1 panel discussion on The Good Samaritan, which MacLeod did not attend. During the panel, several members of the Kenyon community expressed the pain and indignation they felt in the aftermath of the play-in-progress’s release via email.
The panelists were Associate Professor of English Ivonne García, whose research scrutinizes Latinx representation in literature; Professor of Dance and Chair of the Dance, Drama and Film Department Balinda Craig-Quijada; and Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84.
Each of the panelists began by describing their relation to the play and the larger conversation about race and discrimination. Tazewell said he is both a member of MacLeod’s department and “a black man who … [has] been the object of micro and macro racial aggressions, from students, faculty, from strangers and friends, even some of the people who are in this room.” Craig-Quijada said she is “an artist whose principal form of research is embodied and a Latina woman.”
García’s opening remarks lasted the longest. She identified herself as a “published scholar of U.S. and Latinx literature … the proud faculty advisor of Adelante and … a founding faculty member of the Latin@ [sic] Studies concentration.”
Her statement emphasized three points: She hoped the audience would consider how their “positions with regards to others, especially non-white others, should influence [their] choices,” as well as the ethics of representation; she urged the Dance, Drama and Film department to stage a play by a Latinx playwright; and she underlined the importance of freedom of expression.
There was an elephant in the room during the following Q&A: Students and faculty addressed MacLeod, who was not there.
Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio posed questions about the play’s intent, which none of the panelists could speak to directly.
Chloe Hannah-Drullard ’19 said she felt MacLeod’s refusal to attend the event indicated “a lack of trust she has in us as people with opinions, people with identities, people with feelings.”
Craig-Quijada said that MacLeod was open to speaking with people who had concerns about the play during her office hours.
“I don’t think [going to her office hours] is something that Adelante is interested in doing,” Adelante co-president Eduardo Vargas ’18 said in an interview with the Collegian. “We’re not going to take that upon ourselves.” Vargas also said that he was not aware of any efforts by MacLeod to reach out to the organization.
“It was good to see so much solidarity from the campus [at the panel] and it was good to hear the voices of the professors that supported us,” Vargas said. “The bad thing is, of course, MacLeod wasn’t there so it wasn’t really a dialogue. It was kind of a monologue with sort of a dialogue.”
During the panel, Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann criticized some students’ reactions to the play, drawing on his family’s personal experience with censorship and marginalization.
He argued that the response to the play was “the end of liberal education at Kenyon.”
In an interview with the Collegian, Baumann said his father functioned as “the guardian censor” of the German Jewish cultural league in 1933.
Baumann said the league’s performances “couldn’t perform anything the Nazis disapproved of, and they couldn’t have anything in there that the Nazis would see as subversive.”
“I don’t want to see anything like that at Kenyon,” he said, responding to questions some students raised about potential departmental oversight of playwrights’ creative work going forward. “I don’t want to see people having to censor themselves or appeal to an authorized committee of censors before they can say something or write something or perform something.“
Vargas said “nobody envisions a filter or like a screen through which every piece of art [passes] through.”
Instead, he said he considered a sensitivity checker (a position some students were suggesting as a potential solution) as more of “a resource that people can consult with if they have doubts or concerns, or any shadow of doubt that their representation of something they don’t personally know about may be misrepresented.”
Baumann was also critical of what he considered personal attacks on the playwright.
He said he thought Adelante’s request that MacLeod apologize to them after retracting the play was “out of bounds.”
“People who are looking only at the wrong that has been done to them and not thinking about what they’re doing to other people tend to be the ones ruled by emotion,” he said.
Decatur said the conversation around the play “is not important enough to signal the end of liberal education at Kenyon” in an interview with the Collegian, suggesting that liberal arts education had withstood greater debates around the institution of slavery, for example.
Primarily right-wing media news outlets picked up coverage of the play starting over the weekend, often borrowing from the Collegian’s coverage, as well as that of the Kenyon Thrill. The Weekly Standard and Fox News, both conservative-leaning news and opinion outlets, covered The Good Samaritan in conjunction with the creation of the Whiteness Group, a discussion group for white students hoping to act as allies to people of color, which was started at the College the week before the play’s release.
The Weekly Standard piece, titled “Kenyon College Cancels Play About Immigration; Starts ‘Whiteness Group,’” was written by Adam Rubenstein ’17, who is the publication’s assistant books and arts editor. (This headline is inaccurate — MacLeod, not the College, canceled the play.)
“I think that the conversations are still going on on campus, but I also have heard lots more conversations happening out in the wider public,” Tazewell said. “It’s been on Facebook and it’s been talked about by alums and the trustees. There are lots of people who are talking about this and I think that’s good but I also think that it’s a little tricky because we, the Kenyon community, no longer really control that dialogue.”
The Dance, Drama and Film department is considering alternatives that will give students a chance to view and perform in a spring mainstage production.
Henry Toohey ’18 is a drama major who was the student lighting designer for The Good Samaritan as part of his thesis project. He said the play’s cancellation was “a bit of a relief,” due to his concerns about its content.
Toohey will now complete his drama major by serving as the lighting designer for Annapurna, another senior thesis play.
Though MacLeod said she decided to “cancel the spring Bolton show” in her announcement, Tazewell said the drama department is still deciding whether there will be any mainstage spring production.
The department requested that students stop circulating copies of the play.
Craig-Quijada emailed the student body asking that hard copies of the play “be returned to the departmental office and that electronic copies be deleted” last Friday afternoon.
Decatur wrote that “the process of generating this specific agenda for action has to involve all of us in order to include a wide range of viewpoints,” in a blog post on Feb. 7. He said he asked the working group of faculty, staff and students to report back to him within the next two weeks on ideas to move forward.