The creators and performers of NIGGER WETBACK CHINK like to say they have offended people in 44 states with their electrifying, in-your-face, comedic take on stereotypes and race. But though the play has been staged across the country, and has earned accolades for its proactive, if provocative, contribution to race relations, it's apparently too racy to be seen at Cal State Long Beach.
The university last week informed Michele Roberge, the executive director of the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, where the play was scheduled to be staged Sept. 29, that the show needed to be canceled. That prompted Roberge, who has helmed the center for 14 years, to tender her resignation, effective Friday.
"It's not about me," Roberge said. "It's about the artists and the students. By censoring this show, we're depriving students of the opportunity from hearing a different point of view about race relations and making up their own minds about what in the news every day, from Black Lives Matter to police brutality. And as a professional presenting theater [entity] on a university campus, I think our job is to bring topics like this to the campus to be seen and discussed. But the university has curtailed my ability to do that, and I have enough integrity that I couldn't accept [the decision]."
The Carpenter Center is a professional theater, but is owned by CSULB and operates within the college of the arts.
The decision is far different from last year, when the show was staged, even though some voiced concerns. The NAACP wrote an official letter of protest and, according to CSULB spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp, some members of the campus community objected to the title. However, university President Jane Close Conoley, according to Romberg, "wrote an articulate and very supportive letter," stating that the school's mission included presenting works like this.
"I concur that our university is a perfect setting for this discussion and presentation of controversial themes and issues," Conoley wrote to the NAACP last June, according to a Facebook post by Roberge announcing her resignation. "As the largest public university arts college in the Western states,we believe the arts are the perfect venue for this kind of inquiry and discussion….As President, it is my goal to push the envelope on matters of race and prejudice to ensure The Beach remains a safe haven for freedom of expression on this vitally important topic."
Here's the show's legendarily in-your-face opening skit. TRIGGER WARNING: There's a lot of the title right off the bat.
Cognizant of the offensive words in the play's title, last year the show's performers visited the campus, meeting with students and faculty, and doing interviews on the campus radio and TV stations.
"They did really some important educational activities," Roberge said. "They were very accessible and students had a lot of input. And the show sold out. So it was a terrific residency and that's why I waned to bring it back again."
University spokesperson Uhlenkamp said the concerns last year focused on the play's title, but this year, it was the actual material.
"Members of the campus community [this year] voiced concerns that the performance wasn't achieving the goal of constructing a dialogue about racial relations," he said. "Not to disparage the performers, but there were questions of the educational value of the performance, so the president asked the Carpenter team to withdraw the performance."
Uhlenkamp, who said the artists will be compensated, didn't have specifics as to what members of the campus community voiced concerns, whether students, professors or custodians. But he did say "there were discussions with various campus constituents."
NIGGER WETBACK CHINK co-star Rafael Agustín offered the following official statement to the Weekly:
We’re deeply disappointed in the recent turn of events associated with the planned presentation of our show, N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK, at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach.
While we acknowledge the undeniably challenging nature of the show title, there is a long history of broad support for this project dating back to its origin as a student show at UCLA. Our travels nationally include performances at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity and over 150 venues in more than 40 states. It has long been the position of our company that there is a vast difference between using these words to express hatred and having a mature conversation about their use. We encourage important dialogue within diverse communities like Long Beach, and believe that the artists of our show deserved an opportunity to share stories borne from the real-life experiences of its authors.
We know that giving a platform to strong voices is what drove Executive Director Michelle Roberge to book us for a return engagement at the Carpenter Center, and were devastated to hear of her decision to leave the position following our show cancellation. She has been staggeringly professional, thoughtful, and tenacious in her support of our show and company and we are so grateful to her.
Please let it be known that we believe deeply in the need for change as advocated by the Black Lives Matter movement and stand in solidarity with their commitment to achieving freedom and justice for all black lives.
We cannot ignore, however, that this occurrence also stands as critical juncture in the path of free speech on the campus of a public educational institution in perhaps our most liberal state. The same act of censorship that today may seem to protect a community may be used next time as justification to silence a community in desperate need of a voice.
We intend to keep the conversation going even though the Carpenter Center stage will remain empty on September 29th.
Co-Founder, Speak Theater Arts
Long Beach St.'s decision is ironic. In 2010, the Carpenter Center received a $250,000 grant to mount a two-year, campus-wide project called "Banned, Blacklisted and Boycotted: Censorship and the Response to it," a multi-media exploration and conversation about censorship. But the university's Uhlenkamp terms the decision a cancellation, not censorship.
"It's a performance at the Carpenter Center," he said. "It's an entertainment venue rather than a classroom, so I'm not comfortable calling it censorship."
Roberge is less uncomfortable.
"I knew I had to protect the idea of the Carpenter Center's ability to present artists," she said. "I just couldn't come to work every day to work at a place that condones censorship. The show is targeted for university audiences and it has won awards for the work it has done in (promoting) positive race relations, which is something I think we need a little more of these days."
Silver lining for Roberge? Cerritos College has voiced interest in perhaps mounting the show and "I'm hoping I can help broker that," she said.