Reader Commentary: Clarify misconceptions in ‘And Then There Were None’ Justice articles
I write in response to Evan Mahnken’s article "Criticize poor handling of 'And Then There Were None,'" published in the Justice on April 24. Mahnken not only misrepresents our department's letter to the Undergraduate Theater Collective regarding the production of "And Then There Were None," he also grossly distorts the events leading up to the sole performance of the play on Saturday, April 14th, as well as my comments at the post-performance talkback.
First, let me state for the record: Nowhere in our letter did we call on the UTC to cancel the play. Indeed, we affirmed their right to mount the production, a right enshrined in Brandeis' . What we asked them to consider was if, given everything they knew about the play's deeply racist and dehumanizing history, it was just and right to mount the play, and if the answer was yes, whether they had mounted it in a way that "bear[ed] the moral responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions have on the community." The UTC's decision to suspend production of the play on the opening night and subsequently to offer a single public showing is one that they have ownership over. It appears that this pause in the production offered the UTC an opportunity to reflect on a process that was, by their own admission, deeply flawed. We did not force them to take this course of action, and Mahnken’s suggestion that we bullied them is wrongheaded. Bullying and intimidation manifest themselves in myriad ways; our letter is simply not one of them.
Mahnken also faults us for not being in attendance at the forum held in lieu of the play's premiere on Thursday, April 12 at 8 p.m. What he neglects to tell readers is that we were invited to attend the forum in an email sent to us at 6:20 p.m. on Thursday evening. Needless to say, the timing of the email rendered it impossible for our faculty, including myself, to be there. This, I am told, was pointed out at the forum. It is not clear why Mahnken omitted this from his article. He also conflates the proposed faculty panel, which never took place, with the talkback which occurred on April 14. Having received adequate advance notice that the play was going to be staged on the 14th and followed by a talkback, I was able to attend. There was nothing disingenuous, as Mahnken claims, about this. It was important for me to be there, having engaged with the process since early March, when I was first contacted by the play's producer. I was well within my rights to decline participating in the proposed faculty panel, but I nonetheless continued to be in dialogue with the play's producer. This included arranging and participating in a lengthy discussion with Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mark Brimhall-Vargas and the play's producer and director.
The night of the play, I appreciated having the opportunity to speak with the cast members and their families, to hear their concerns and to explain our's directly to them. Far from the "trainwreck" that Mahnken describes, there was just the kind of open dialogue that he calls for in his article. It is disheartening that he felt the need to disparage that conversation, and to misrepresent my contributions to it.
Finally, in the Justice's editorial, "Criticize entire 'And Then There Were None' process," also published on April 24, the editorial board criticizes the African and Afro-American Studies faculty for "not reaching out earlier...and...failing to advise students when they had requested help with a contentious issue." Allow me to state for the record, again, that as a faculty member and chair of the department I did engage in a forthright conversation with the play's producer when she reached out to me in early March. I not only suggested that she meet with Brimhall-Vargas, I arranged the meeting, and then I participated in it for its entirety. During that meeting I made the same points that our letter went on to make again. I am at a loss for how this constitutes a failure on our part.
I recognize that this was difficult for the UTC, and especially disappointing for the students who put so much of their time and energy into the production. Much of the intervening conversation has centered their frustrations amid concerns about the UTC's internal processes and broader questions about freedom of speech and expression. What has gotten lost in the mix are the play's horrifying roots in the long history of dehumanization and extermination of Black and Native peoples. The more the conversation loses sight of this history and the manifold ways in which the past remains present, the easier it is to misinterpret or mischaracterize our letter. So allow me to end with a reminder of where Agatha Christie's novel first began: a racist nursery rhyme about the serial murder of 10 Black children. It should never be easy to look past that.
— Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) is an associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies.