Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod canceled the premiere of her latest play on Jan. 31 after it was widely criticized for its representation of an undocumented Guatemalan minor, as well as its treatment of topics such as race, class and sexual orientation.
MacLeod is a professor of drama and the James Michael playwright-in-residence. The play, The Good Samaritan, was scheduled to premiere April 5 at the Bolton Theater. MacLeod wrote in the Jan. 31 announcement that she was canceling the play “out of respect for the concerns of students and members of the faculty.”
Students and faculty, particularly members of the College’s Latinx community, came out strongly against the play after the script’s release via email on Jan. 6. Sebastián Chávez Erazo ’18, the co-president of Latinx student association Adelante, said many feel the sole Latino character Hector is a “racist, harmful representation of a Guatemalan youth.”
“I know some struggled with the script’s satiric elements,” MacLeod wrote. “But Freud aptly wrote that humor is about ‘bringing the repressed into light.’” MacLeod declined an interview with Collegian after multiple requests for comment and a list of questions were emailed to her. She referred the publication to her public statement.
The play is based on a true story: in 2017, a group of men in Marion County, fewer than 50 miles from the College, were indicted on federal charges for smuggling Guatemalan workers and forcing them to work on an egg farm for up to 12 hours per day, according to a Dec. 28 Toledo Blade article. Some of the workers were 14 and 15 years old.
The Good Samaritan imagines what might happen if one of the minors involved in this forced labor operation escaped to a nearby liberal arts school. The play takes place in a dorm room as a group of privileged white students decide what to do after one of them finds Hector in the backseat of her car.
The play is labeled a comedy, and much of the play’s humor is told through the cultural insensitivity of the white students. The play’s bisexual character is taunted and speculated over, while the working-class white character speaks in exaggerated rural slang — but most of the play’s dialogue revolves around 15-year-old Hector.
He does not speak English and the students who speak Spanish continually misinterpret and misspeak when they try to communicate with him. He has slightly over 130 lines in the 139-page play, and the majority of them are under 10 words. “Guatemala,” he says, patting his chest; “huevos,” meaning eggs; “gracias,” meaning thank you. Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio said she has identified 40 instances of ethnic insensitivity in the play. For example, the characters continually claim Hector is from Argentina though he says he is from Guatemala. They also repeatedly refer to him as “illegal.”
Some of the Spanish in the play is either mistranslated or basic. In one section, Hector and another character, Adam, speak in a language that seems more Italian than Spanish.
“The Good Samaritan supposedly addresses the ‘topical issue’ of Latin American immigration in the United States,” Camila Wise ’20, public relations manager of Adelante, said. “However, Hector does not feel like a main character. Instead, it is obvious that he is used as a plot device for the white characters’ comedy.”
Responses from the Latinx community
In her Jan. 6 email to the campus, MacLeod invited people to attend a public forum with the play’s production team, departmental faculty and herself (the playwright) on Feb. 1 at 11:10 a.m. in the Hill Theater. She wrote she would talk about “what inspired and informed the play, the story it tells, and how comedy can be a force for change.” She encouraged attendees to ask questions.
In her later announcement, she said she will no longer be attending the forum at the Hill Theater on Feb. 1 “in the hopes that the community can get to issues larger than a single play.” The forum will still proceed as planned without MacLeod.
Adelante responded to the announcement of the show’s cancellation in a public statement on Jan. 31. In an emailed statement to the campus, the group wrote: “It is inexcusable that you fail to offer an apology to the group directly affected by the representations in your play, those of us who, on top of constantly justifying and affirming our presence on this campus, have to now bear the emotional and psychological labor of expressing to the wider Kenyon community, within the confines of ‘civil discourse,’ why these misrepresentations are detrimental.”
The statement encouraged MacLeod to attend, “as it would be an opportunity for yourself, as well as everyone in attendance, to genuinely hear the voices of Latinx youths, voices that have been historically silenced.”
The executive board of Adelante — which includes Lesly Maldonado ’20, Eduardo Vargas ’18, Sabrina Serrano ’18, Chávez Erazo and Wise — met with faculty and members of the administration, including Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 and Dean of Students Robin Hart Ruthenbeck, on Jan. 30.
At the meeting, the members of Adelante were told MacLeod’s play was protected under the College’s “freedom of expression” clause. The faculty reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of expression in a statement last year.
Alma, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her privacy, said the play’s cancellation cannot ameliorate the harm it caused. She came into the country without immigration documentation in 2006, at the age of 10. “My DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] expires in less than two years,” Alma said. “I cried hours and hours after reading MacLeod’s script because I could not explain to my peers why it had made me so mad.”
“It is hard to explain why even an apology cannot erase the trauma of leaving your home country, of enduring poverty and disease without the help of food stamps or health insurance, of entering another country where you are the scapegoat to all the issues thrown around,” Alma said.
She said the play’s use of stereotypes was particularly harmful. “It hurts when jokes about cocaine and alcohol are associated with marginalized communities,” Alma said. At the beginning of the play, one of the characters, Lexy, mistakes Hector’s request for hot cocoa as a request for cocaine.
“It hurts when I wonder if that is what the people here think about me. It hurts when you see it written all over a single script,” Alma said.
President Sean Decatur urged the Kenyon community to engage in respectful dialogue about the play in a Jan. 30 news bulletin.
To Chávez Erazo, the co-president of Adelante, Decatur’s statement missed the point. “This shouldn’t be framed as an opportunity to talk about race,” Chávez Erazo said. “Rather, that would be derailing the work that we as students of color are already doing. We don’t need a racist, harmful representation … to be the springboard for the conversation.”
Students and faculty within the drama department said they were anxious about MacLeod’s play for several months. “The first problem I noticed with this play was last semester when the name was ‘Juan Deere,’” drama major Jono Bornstein ’18 said. (The title referred to tractor company John Deere Tractors.) “Everyone in the [drama] community was like, ‘That’s a racist pun,’ so we were all a little bit apprehensive about ‘what’s this play going to be about?’”
MacLeod ultimately changed the name. “The story is not about that character, so that was misleading,” Balinda Craig-Quijada, chair of the dance, drama and film department and professor of dance, said.
It is typical for playwrights-in-residence to produce their own plays to stage at the Bolton Theater. But there was less oversight over MacLeod’s writing process than is typical, Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell said. He said MacLeod was in Rome leading the Kenyon-Rome program when she began writing the play, which meant the department had less contact with her.
Last week, the drama department faculty, some of whom had access to the play, encouraged MacLeod to engage “in some kind of open forum where she could answer questions and hear feedback,” Tazewell said.
“[The public forum] was a response to the controversy that was brewing in various circles,” Craig-Quijada said. “In the department meeting last week, we discussed that it might be best to be completely transparent and make the script available to everybody.”
Not the first time: The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky
Bornstein also said this is not the first time MacLeod’s representation of a minority character has been criticized. MacLeod wrote and directed The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky, which premiered in October 2014. On her website, the play’s description reads: “When the rugby captain at a Scottish boarding school declares himself king … the players (boys, girls and the conflicted) fight for the right to rule and the right to be called Charlie.” One of the characters in the play is a trans man.
“That play was pretty transphobic in how it dealt with the one transgender character,” Bornstein said. “It had a lot of similar problems [to The Good Samaritan] — it tossed around this transgender character without giving them agency, using them as a prop in the play instead of anything else.”
Emma Longstreth ’18 said it was the first mainstage show she saw at Kenyon. “I walked out with a weird feeling about it,” Longstreth said. “Over time, I realized it was because it felt as if the trans character’s entire identity was being trans. It felt like the character was there for a plot device.”
Longstreth feels that there are important differences between The Good Samaritan and The Ballad of Bonnie Prince Chucky. “I would say that the Latino character in The Good Samaritan is a little different, because the trans character was never played off for jokes.”
Though Longstreth remembers some people mentioning that the play made them uncomfortable and tokenized the trans character, this criticism was not “anywhere near the response that The Good Samaritan has garnered.”
In a meeting with the Collegian, the members of the Adelante executive board emphasized how physically and mentally exhausting the experience has been. “We’re all either immigrants or children of immigrants, or grandchildren,” Vargas said. “And we just ask that our stories be treated with respect. These stories are painful, stories about pain and trauma … not just crossing the border itself, but coming into this country and living as a border subject. When these experiences are reduced and robbed of their complexity, I don’t think it has a space at Kenyon.”