Playwright or wrong?
This article was originally published by Santa Monica College’s student media company, The Corsair on Oct. 18, 2023. It is republished on AfroLA as part of a collaboration with SMC student journalists. Read more The Corsair coverage on “By the River Rivanna” here.
Senior leadership at Santa Monica College (SMC) met Tuesday morning to discuss whether the SMC theater production of G. Bruce Smith’s “By the River Rivanna” should premiere as planned after faculty members raised concerns about the play’s content over the past week. While the production narrowly escaped cancelation, its opening night on Friday, Oct. 20, will be sure to draw attention with the possibility of protests outside.
Campus reactions to “By the River Rivanna”
Written by Smith and directed by Perviz Sawoski, SMC theater department chair, the story is about Grady Davis, a black lawyer and academic, who is compelled to learn about his ancestry by reading his great-great-great-great grandmother’s journal. Grady and his friend, Adrian Armstrong, are transported through journal entries to 1850, when their ancestors lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia at the “Hope Plantation.” Grady’s ancestor served as a slave, while Adrian’s was the master. In the play’s second act, it is revealed that one of the male slaves shared a romantic relationship with his male master.
Smith, a white man, is a playwright and former public information officer at SMC. He is currently the college’s first-ever playwright-in-residence. This is Smith’s and Sawoski’s fifth production together with SMC theater. The idea for “By the River Rivanna” started with Sawoski, who was inspired to produce the play after visiting a plantation in South Carolina. She then brought it to Smith to write.
Smith invited SMC’s Black Collegians program leader Sherri Bradford to attend a rehearsal on Oct. 12. She was accompanied by Jermaine Junius, president of the Pan African Faculty and Staff Alliance.
Junius said he found the show deeply distressing. Sitting through the depiction of brutal lashings, even though it occurred offstage, was extremely traumatic, he said. The use of the n-word in the play was also troubling to him. He acknowledged that art can sometimes be controversial, as it encourages discussions about contemporary social issues, but said he felt that this particular show did not achieve that goal. Instead, it romanticizes a painful period in American history and ignores the harsh realities of that time.
These concerns were escalated to the SMC administration, sparking deeper discussions about the possibility of delaying or canceling the play’s premiere. According to Smith, Faculty Association president Peter Morse said the college is committed to academic freedom and demanding cancelation of the play would be censorship.
“My obligation as an artist is not to make people comfortable and this was a story I was compelled to tell,” said Smith.
When asked about the controversy surrounding the play, Henry David, an SMC student actor in the production, said, “I think you just leave it up to other people as individuals to decide. We’re not a monolithic society. Everybody has their own way of thinking about things and living.”
The Vice President of Academic Affairs Jason Beardsley, Sawoski, Bradford and Dean of Community and Academic Relations Kiersten Elliot have yet to respond to any requests for comment.