The cast of Santa Monica College's "By The River Rivanna" surround Tia Jiji, playing a Yoruba ancestral spirits during the final scenes of the play performed in a rehearsal on Oct. 17, 2023. (Akemi Rico/The Corsair)

Santa Monica College “By the River Rivanna” production is canceled

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.

The premiere of Santa Monica College’s theater production “By The River Rivanna” has officially been canceled after a week of intense debates about its content and social impact. With the support of 13 other SMC employee-based organizations, the Pan African Faculty and Staff Alliance led the opposition to the performance, organizing a protest for Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in front of the Theater Arts Studio Stage on the college’s main campus.

The organization said that the play “embraces a romantic version of the terrible and tragic legacy of slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation in our country, in addition to trafficking in stereotypic tropes.” They further cited historical inaccuracy, the focus on themes of sexual abuse of Black male and female bodies and a lack of sensitivity for peoples of African ancestry among some of the reasons for their course of action.

A group of actors portraying enslaved persons stand together and hold each other to comfort one another.
Enslaved persons in the play “By The River Rivanna” hold each other as they hear a newly arrived slave’s story of being whipped. (Akemi Rico/The Corsair)

The decision was confirmed by the play’s director Perviz Sawoski in a statement shared on Oct. 20. She explained the decision was made the previous night, adding that “the level of hatred and anger in the community was unprecedented.” She said that “there was no disrespect whatsoever to any community” and that the play “was made a scapegoat.”

Confirmation also came from SMC administration a few hours later. A statement explained that the production was “halted following a collective decision made by the faculty and student actors involved.”

SMC’s Black Collegians program leader Sherri Bradford shared with faculty and students the same afternoon that, while protest will no longer happen, they would still “come together in community at 6:00 p.m. to provide a space to process all that has happened.”

It was revealed days later that the cancelation came after the student actors voted for the play to not move forward. SMC administration confirmed that Smith and Sawoski were consulted and in agreement with a voting process to determine the production’s future. The first round of anonymous votes was aimed at determining how many of the cast members wanted the play to move forward. Nine students voted to cancel, seven to move forward and four to delay it. In a second round of votes on how many would like to perform in a private showing for family and friends, 12 voted yes and eight voted no. After discussing the results, the students agreed that since eight of them did not want to be part of a private showing, the play should be canceled altogether.

Smith said that while he respects the wish of the student actors, he has “no reason to believe they would have voted to cancel the play if the SMC administration hadn’t harassed them.”

The cast members have so far declined to comment on the play’s cancelation.

The Corsair editor’s note: This article was updated on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023 at 5:52 p.m. to include the official statement by SMC administration and Sherri Bradford’s comments. This article was updated on Oct. 27, 2023 at 10:19 a.m. to include information on the voting process that led to the play’s cancelation.

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