Metro

Brandeis cancels play amid protests over racism — and gets more backlash

Brandeis University’s campus.
File photo/2014
Brandeis University’s campus.

The notion that the staging of a play about comedian Lenny Bruce would be held up over incendiary content seems too ironic to be true. Or like the setup for a scorching joke Bruce would have told.

But half a century after Bruce’s death, the social satirist and free-speech champion is a character in a drama unfolding at Brandeis University, where theater and arts faculty decided to postpone the planned fall staging of a script by a distinguished graduate, playwright Michael Weller, after some students and alumni complained the work vilified its black characters and the Black Lives Matter social movement.

Weller then withdrew the work, entitled “Buyer Beware,” to premier the play with professional actors “elsewhere,” according to a Brandeis spokesman.

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Free speech klaxons have sounded over the decision.

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“We couldn’t believe it when this one came across our desk,” said Will Creeley, a senior vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a First Amendment watchdog. “A play about Lenny Bruce is going to be canceled? It seemed like somebody was pulling a prank on us.”

The protagonist in Weller’s play plans a Lenny Bruce-style comedy act, and triggers student protests.

The fact that the play will not go forward at Brandeis got a mention Wednesday on Steve Bannon’s right-wing website Breitbart News, which regularly features stories deriding what it sees as liberal, politically correct campus culture.

Weller, 75, dismissed criticism of the work, saying in a WBUR interview that students who objected “just don’t know how to read a play.”

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Students, however, said they can read a play just fine. And that they are not are delicate snowflakes bubble-wrapping themselves against artwork that might hurt their feelings. They said they are happy with challenging material. They just don’t believe this particular play is worth staging.

Andrew Child, a Brandeis theater student who read a draft of the script and led opposition to the play, said its black characters are “ridiculous and vicious.” Weller’s portrayal of Black Lives Matter read like an angry, Breitbart-esque caricature, which struck students familiar with the movement as silly and ignorant, he said. On top of that, he said, the play seems like it was slapped together and is simply not very good.

“We can do bad plays,” Child said. But at a time when live theater is trying to expand its traditional audience beyond the white and affluent, “Why would we want to elevate something like this? Why do we need to put time and resources into something like this?”

The controversy over the play has roots in 2016, when the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts said it intended to honor Weller, an accomplished playwright and a 1965 graduate, with its Creative Arts Award. In what seemed like a coup, the school announced that Weller would be writing a play “about the student protest culture on college campuses — and specifically Brandeis.”

Weller spent time in residency at Brandeis, conducting research for the play by speaking to students and exploring the school’s Lenny Bruce archives, which Brandeis acquired in 2014 from Bruce’s daughter, Kitty. The intention was for Weller’s play to premiere at Brandeis.

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Kitty Bruce said by phone that she is still looking into what happened with the play, and did not want to comment until she felt fully informed.

In Weller’s script, the protagonist is a student who repeats what he hears in recordings of Lenny Bruce, including the n-word and other racial slurs, according to The Brandeis Hoot, a campus newspaper that obtained Weller’s script. The character quotes Bruce’s argument that repeating the words over and over would take away their power to hurt people and render them “meaningless noise.”

Weller did not respond to e-mails from the Globe. He told WBUR his play “was trying to show a broad cross-section of people under a lot of pressure.”

Bruce, who was born in New York as Leonard Alfred Schneider, was famed for stream-of-consciousness rants, filled with uncomfortable allusions and obscenities, though his language would be unremarkable for a comedy act today. He was an early free speech crusader, who faced obscenity charges that could have sent him to prison.

“Famed for his ‘sick humor,’ Bruce was in courts in California and Illinois nearly as often as he appeared on nightclub stages,” United Press International wrote in Bruce’s 1966 obituary. Bruce was convicted of obscenity after a 1964 performance at a New York nightclub, but was posthumously pardoned in 2003 by Governor George Pataki. Bruce died at age 40 of a drug overdose.

The LA Times published at the time of his death: “At his best he was received as a tonic antidote to what his admirers saw as a stifling status quo, as a kind of stand-up varnish remover, cutting through society’s gloss to reveal the ugliness below.”

In the play, The Hoot reported that the main character asks Brandeis administrators, “If Lenny Bruce came to life right now, for one day, and he was booked for a gig on campus, how would the administration react?”

The school’s intention in postponing the play, a school spokesman said, was to stage it as part of a spring course on the sort of “difficult art” that makes people uncomfortable. The course is scheduled to go on.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark