Protests scheduled at premiere of controversial Santa Monica College play
This article was originally published by Santa Monica College’s student media company, The Corsair on Oct. 20, 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.
AfroLA editor’s note: “By The River Rivanna” was officially canceled the morning of its Oct. 20 premiere.
With one day left until opening night of the “By the River Rivanna” theater production, Santa Monica College’s (SMC) President Kathryn Jeffery decided the play’s premiere will move forward as scheduled in spite of advocacy from several faculty members for its cancelation. Protests are expected to take place Friday at 6:30 p.m. in front of the Theater Arts Studio Stage on the college’s main campus.
“By the River Ravanna” was written by former SMC public information officer and current playwright-in-residence G. Bruce Smith. It is directed by theater department chair Perviz Sawoski. The idea for the play, a story set in both modern times and the 19th century about a romantic relationship between an enslaved man and his master, came to Sawoski while visiting Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.
Opposition to the performance began last week after members of the Pan African Alliance and Black Collegians program attended a rehearsal and found the show “deeply distressing,” according to Pan African Alliance President Jermaine Junius.
Discussions about the play’s premiere continued throughout the week, culminating in a meeting Oct. 19 among SMC senior staff and legal counsel. Their decision to allow for the play’s debut was based on matters of freedom of speech and academic freedom.
“I recognize that it’s a matter of academic freedom, but it’s academic freedom at the expense of our black community,” said English department professor Elisa Meyer. “When the system reinforces that kind of oppression, the people being hurt have no choice but to protest.”
Protests are organized by the Pan African Alliance with support from 13 other SMC employee-based organizations. SMC Police Chief Johnnie Adams has been preparing the space outside the theater, designating free speech zones and press areas as well as coordinating plans in case of unplanned disruptions. “Ultimately, everybody wants to get their message out, and it’s my job to ensure that they do that safely… so hopefully, tomorrow will be a very smooth demonstration of their right to assemble and have free speech,” he said.
The Pan African Alliance said in a release announcing the protests that the play “embraces a romantic version of the terrible and tragic legacy of slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation in our country.” Maria Martinez leads Adelante, an academic support program from the campus Latino Center. Martinez shared the statement and encouraged “all to join our Black brothers and sisters at the protest.” SMC’s Student Equity Center also shared the release, adding that, “it’s crucial for all to understand the responsibility to freedom of speech and preventing harm,” and that while the organization promotes academic freedom and freedom of speech as “fundamental values,” they also recognize the potential for speech to cause harm, particularly as it relates to “racially-minoritized communities.”
In an email sent to faculty the afternoon of Oct. 19, Sawoski said, “The play is not meant to be discriminatory against any group of persons,” and that there has been “hysteria and misinformation” about it. She said that pulling the public performance would be “akin to censorship.” She added that the script was updated several times up until the previous day, and that it no longer includes the “n-word” as it originally did. After a technical rehearsal Oct. 17, Sawoski said, “People are putting more thoughts on it than we intended.” “[They’re] filling in blanks with whatever they think is egregious.”
Expanding on the production leadership’s stance on censorship, Smith said he has been in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union and hopes they “could make a statement or reach out to the administration” to discuss matters related to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. After SMC campus administration’s decision to proceed, he said the he and Sawoski are very happy that the show will go on despite what he called harassment and bullying,
Crystal Robbins, an adjunct instructor and the production’s dialect coach, was quoted in Sawoski’s email. Robbins said that she has an issue with the production being called a “slavery play.” She believes “the central theme is about power in many forms of relationships.” Robbins, a white woman, was hired to instruct actors on Yoruba dialects and “slave speak.”
While the campus community anticipated the administration’s final verdict, faculty and students met across campus to discuss the script, its historical accuracy and reflect upon the institution’s values.
History and ethnic studies department faculty discussed the script on Oct. 18. “This play insults every aspect of my identity as a queer person, as a Black person and someone who is a practitioner of Ifá, which is the religious tradition that is being spoken about,” said history professor Justice Hamilton. On the play’s portrayal of religion and Yoruba culture, history professor Trisden Shaw explained that it is “historically inaccurate” because enslaved people were deliberately and successfully separated from their traditions by the 1850s. “We can’t, in an academically honest way, publish a play like this,” Shaw said.
Cecilia Jeong, president of SMC’s associated students organization, shared a statement on Oct. 19 acknowledging the importance of academic freedom. “The play perpetuates problematic themes and discourse,” however, including the “centering of white perspectives and voices in telling a story about Black experiences” and “romanticizing sexual assault,” among other issues.
Student cast members continue to rehearse, despite being confronted with opposing views from faculty. Many have expressed they understand both perspectives while others focused on the possibility of the play’s cancelation.
In a letter to James Beardsley, dean and vice president of academic affairs, cast member Ava Kitt said, “I’m heartbroken that students concerned with their own self-righteousness who couldn’t even take it upon themselves to see the play are shutting it down and in doing so, squashing riveting and inspiring work from some very talented and profound Black student actors.” Kitt is white and plays the plantation owner’s wife in the play.
Tia Jiji, a Black student who plays the enslaved man’s wife, said that she was hesitant to be part of the play out of respect for her parents who are from Africa. “I told [my mom] what the play is about, and she expressed to me that ‘as long as it’s not offensive, I condone this.’” Regarding the controversy surrounding the play, she said sees both sides.
Lead actor, Earl Williams, expressed conflict over the topics expressed in the play. He said that specifically the Black cast members leave rehearsal and discuss “the challenges and anxiety and just everything that we don’t agree with.” “We talk about that. So, it’s heavy.” Williams added, “I’m not one to sign up for something and then stop or quit. So I tried to find elements in the show that I can grasp onto to be able to, I guess, get me through the process.”
Friday’s premiere and the coinciding protest will set the stage for further discussions.