Following private conversations with playwright Michael Weller ’65, the University’s Theater Department and Division of Creative Arts have chosen to run a course on controversial works of art next semester rather than premiere Weller’s contentious play “Buyer Beware.” 

The play has faced backlash from students and alumni in recent months for its use of slurs and allegedly racist themes, with the University opting this month to cancel a production scheduled for later in the academic year.

Weller, who wrote the plays “Moonchildren” and “Loose Ends” and the screenplay for the movie “Hair,” will be honored with the University’s 2016 to 2017 Creative Arts Award this spring. 

He wrote “Buyer Beware” — about a group of students five years after the University’s 2015 Ford Hall protest — as part of receiving the award, which also includes a campus residency. Weller spent his time at Brandeis engaging with students and conducting research into the University’s Lenny Bruce archives, which are dedicated to the controversial comedian whose obscenity trials proved a landmark for freedom of speech. 

The award marks the University’s “commitment to engaging with the arts as an opportunity for discovery, creativity and innovation across traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Office of the Arts Director Ingrid Schorr wrote in an email to the Justice.

Students launch phone and email campaign

A Facebook event created in September called for students to protest the campus production of “Buyer Beware.” The event, created by Ayelet Schrek ’17, provided students with contact information and call scripts to get in touch with administrators and Theater Department faculty.

“It is an overtly racist play, and will be harmful to the student population if staged,” Schrek wrote in the event description. 

A draft of the play obtained by the Justice shows Ron, a white character, using the n-word and other racial and ethnic slurs while performing one of Bruce’s routines. Ron’s use of the slurs angers his Black roommate, who posts on social media and draws national attention from Black Lives Matter, which calls for a protest of Ron’s performance and a separate graduation for Black students. A wealthy donor, seeing parallels between Ron and himself as a young man, rewards Ron at the end of the play by offering him free tuition.

“In other words, it positions a white man as the brave protagonist and a black man (and BLM) as the over-reacting, violent antagonist,” Schrek’s description reads. “The play rewards Ron for his racism, couched in a neo-liberal narrative. Artistically, it’s inconsistent and just plain bad, and morally it’s abominable.”

The Facebook event, to which 871 individuals were invited, called on students and alumni to express their objection through a phone and email campaign that targeted Theater faculty, Dean of Students Jamele Adams and University President Ron Liebowitz. 

Taking the production elsewhere

The Theater Department chose to run a course next semester rather than hold a production of “Buyer Beware” after “open and productive conversations between Michael and faculty from the Theater department and the Division of Creative arts,” Department of Theater Arts Chair Susan Dibble wrote in an email to the Justice.

Students will engage with the play through a rigorous, team-taught course, while Weller will premiere his play in a professional venue, she wrote. “Again, this mutual and amicable decision was made after ongoing open and productive conversations between the playwright and faculty members,” she added.

The course will “engage directly with a variety of controversial works of art ­­— within a rigorous educational framework that will allow us to address difficult topics in an open format. … The course will allow Brandeis to do what it does best as an academic institution — engage in rigorous and challenging educational work,” Dibble wrote.  

The course’s instructors also plan to engage directly with the script and the issues it raises, she wrote, adding that reading the full script in class is contingent upon the University obtaining copyright permission from the play’s production company. “We are hopeful that we will be able to obtain that permission,” Dibble wrote. 

Student interest

Despite the controversy surrounding the content of the play, there were some students who showed interest in auditioning and being involved in the production. 

Josh Rubenstein ’19 wrote in an email to the Justice that he was interested in auditioning because Weller is Tony-nominated and the production was to be directed by Sam Weisman, who directed the movies “George of the Jungle” and “D2: The Mighty Ducks.” 

“I love being a part of new original work because you get to be the first one to discover the story and characters of a script and bring them to life,” Rubenstein added. Rubenstein also wrote that he knew of others who were interested in auditioning for many of the same reasons. 

However, Rubenstein wrote that he believes that the play “brings a lot of conflict, reflection, and frustration to the campus. Some of it beneficial and some of it damaging.” 

While he liked the idea of exploring Bruce’s work and “seeing the dichotomy between how it was criticized during his time vs. today, … the problem with the script for me is that the character who discovers Bruce's words doesn’t have Bruce’s social power. Bruce was putting his fame and social power on the line, where as the character has none and just causes social strife on his college campus.”  

An issue of free expression

Liebowitz formed the Task Force on Free Expression in Nov. 2016 to examine the University’s policies and practices related to academic freedom and free expression, according to the Task Force’s website.

The Task Force’s draft principles were sent out to students on Sept. 8 and are acessible online to those with Brandeis credentials. 

“Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned and civil speech and discussion are respected,” the draft principles read. “This committee seeks to find a common ground by proposing principles that allow even difficult conversations to take place.”

Liebowitz explained in a response provided to the Justice and the Brandeis Hoot that the principles do not represent actual policy, but tenets. 

He believes that the decision to hold a class, rather than a performance, is consistent with the draft principles, he said.

“Since the issues that the play raises, and which have caused much discussion and questioning, will form the basis of a course that the theater arts department and Mr. Weller are trying to finalize for the spring semester, I see the change in how the issues are expressed and then discussed, argued, and debated … as consistent with the draft principles,” Liebowitz said. 

But despite the principles’ commitment to open and inclusive discussion, the decision to cancel the campus production and hold a class instead was one made behind closed doors by Weller and faculty members, as Dibble explained. 

She declined to comment on the specific reasoning that went into the decision, while University Director of Media Relations Julie Jette said that she did not personally know the specifics of the conversation. 

“Those were private conversations,” Jette said of the talks between Weller and faculty.

In her email, Dibble explained that the faculty decision is consistent with similar decisions made on other campuses. 

“I think it’s important to note that decisions on how, where and when to present material are made by faculty on a daily basis at Brandeis and all universities,” she wrote. 

—Natalia Wiater and Hannah Kressel contributed reporting.