Santa Monica College play’s cancelation ripples through campus community
This article was originally published by Santa Monica College’s student media company, The Corsair on Oct. 30, 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 cancelation of Santa Monica College’s theater production “By The River Rivanna” has impacted the college’s community since the decision was made Oct. 19. The play, depicting a romantic relationship between an enslaved man and a male master in the 1850s, faced strong opposition from various SMC organizations ahead of its scheduled premiere on Oct. 20. Faculty, staff and students continued to share their perspectives on the situation in the days that followed.
Pan African Faculty and Staff Alliance & Black Collegians
Instead of the originally planned protests, the Pan African Alliance and Black Collegians program organized a gathering to “provide a space to process all that has happened,” according to Black Collegian’s President Sherri Bradford. Signs reading “This portrayal is a horrible folktale” and “SMC does not care about Black students’ feelings” decorated the orientation hall where students, faculty and staff members met on Friday evening.
Pan African Alliance President Jermaine Junius said, “I am ecstatic that this victory shows that we can support our Black students and that we’re here for them.” More than a dozen more community members addressed the audience, expressing anger about the play and gratitude to the leaders who fought to get it canceled. The absence of SMC’s president. Katheryn Jeffery was also noted.
“We have a Black president that’s not here. That is very telling.This has to go beyond a conversation, it has to keep forward with continual pervasive action from all sides.”—Nicole Woodard, SMC psychology professor
Bradford said, “There’s still a lot of work to be done” at SMC to properly care for students and employees of color, and that it should be an ongoing action led by the college’s leadership.” She said that although the play served as a catalyst for a lot of pain, it has cemented the fact that there is “a community at SMC that is devoted to change.”
“There is a culture on this campus that still is not conducive to an environment where Black students can feel a sense of belonging in general,” Bradford said.
“My main problem with this whole situation is that students should not have been put in a place where the only way for them to get their degree was to play the role of a slave,” said student president of the Black Collegians program Cameron Terry. He said that a couple of actors who were in the production asked him to “do something about it,” motivating Terry to organize the protests.
“My great-great-great-great grandmother was born to enslaved persons. Her name was Minerva Simons. I’m not even sure she was born enslaved because she was considered property. Her descendant is here at SMC having to experience the school she loves think that is entertainment,” said student Devan Cotton.
G. Bruce Smith, playwright
“Cancel culture is alive and well at Santa Monica College,” said “By the River Rivanna” playwright G. Bruce Smith in a statement on his Facebook page. Smith said there has been “an unprecedented and bizarre college administration campaign of bullying and harassment” in favor of the play’s cancelation, calling his position a “lonely battle against censorship of First Amendment rights.”
“I don’t care what the material is… it’s censorship, it’s squashing academic freedom. I will not stop until the college understands that there are consequences to their actions. I will be seeking legal counsel.”—G. Bruce Smith, “By the River Rivanna” playwright
Smith said he reached out to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit focused on “defending fundamental rights on college campuses,” according to their website. The organization sent a letter to Jeffery on Oct. 20, stating they were “deeply concerned by the decision [to cancel the play]” and that the college “must immediately permit the play to proceed as long as the students would like to do so.” When asked for comment days later, FIRE’s campus rights advocacy director Alex Morey did not confirm whether the organization was in possession of evidence of “undue administrative pressure” or reports of harassment before they sent the letter to the SMC administration.
On the play’s content and his place as a white man writing about the Black experience, Smith said, “If white people only wrote about white people, most of the literary canon would be gone.” He cited Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” and Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” as examples of media about Blacks he believes were successfully produced by white creators, adding ,“Should Anne Rice write about vampires? She’s not a vampire, as far as we know.”
Smith also said he wonders if homophobia played a role in advocacy for the play’s cancelation, commenting on the same-sex relationship portrayed between the enslaved man and plantation owner characters. On the accuracy of that relationship, Smith said, “You know there were white gay men… gay men who were enslaved. We didn’t invent homosexuality overnight. These so-called critics don’t care about the play’s sensitivity.”
Perviz Sawoski, director
The play’s director and chair SMC’s theatre arts department said the show was “simple and thoughtfully researched and performed,” and that there was “no disrespect whatsoever intended to any community.” She said that the cancelation occurred due to the “protests and possibility of violence” and the unprecedented “level of hatred and anger in the community.”
Sawoski also said that the cancelation will not have negative repercussions on the students’ academic standing since they all “have done excellent work and deserve a good grade.” On appointing Smith as the first ever playwright-in-residence, she said that there was no process for it nor were other artists considered for the position. Smith and Sawoski have been long-time collaborators. One of their previous SMC productions is 2012’s “Heart Mountain,” a play about the Japanese-American experience in internment camps written by Smith while he served as SMC’s public information officer.
Adrian Thomas, SMC lead theater technicians and playwright
SMC’s lead theater technicians and playwright Adrian Thomas shared his perspective on the play. “As a Black man in America and someone who has been fighting for LGBTQIA rights in L.A. for decades, I stand for fair and truthful depictions of my culture and heritage, and this work is extremely uninformed and ignorant,” he said. “My years of experience in the real world of professional theater have informed me that this play would never stand in the world of today without major protest.”
Thomas added that he was not surprised by the events because he has seen problems with the depiction of Blacks in the theatre arts department since 2008, when according to him, a white actress cast to play the lead an adaptation of the opera “Aida” was put in blackface makeup. He said that faculty members such as theater professor Terrin Adair-Lynch protested the casting, but the play moved forward after being approved by Sawoski. “I was appalled but felt trapped and like I could not speak up. I was new to the campus and needed the job.”
Joseph McGill, historian
Smith cited the work of Joseph McGill as a central inspiration for the play and said that Sawoski approached him with the idea for the production after visiting Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina. The site is one of the plantations included in McGill’s book The Slave Dwelling Project in which the historian explores and discusses the legacy of slavery and plantation sites in America.
McGill said that he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with white people writing stories about the Black experience as long as they are accurate and factual. He confirmed that he was never consulted or approached by the play’s creators about its content and that it’s “a good thing the protests are happening.”
“White people often try to make themselves feel more comfortable about slavery by minimizing and romanticizing that period in time. People come to sites such as plantations to project these ideas, looking for the nice big house and wanting to have weddings while totally disregarding the hardships and history that happened there.”—Joseph McGill, author and historian
Student cast members
One of the student actors in the play, Tia Jiji, said that she initially did not want to be part of the play “out of respect for my African parents,” but decided to join after being asked by Sawoski directly. “While I understand those who are saying that this is art and we’re only trying to tell a story, I also understand that as Black Americans, we deal with generational trauma and it’s painful to watch a play like this.”
“After reading the script for the first time, I had a lot of thoughts. I was a bit shocked at first but as I discussed it with different people of all ages and races, I came to the conclusion that people are complicated and so are characters and stories,” said Ava Kitt, a white cast member. Kitt said that she was aware that some of her castmates were hesitant about the play’s content but was “confused why they didn’t bring up their concerns” to the director or didn’t decide to drop out of the play. She added that she doesn’t “hold anything against” the students who voted to cancel the production.
Several attempts to interview the student actors about the production’s cancelation were made. After two weeks of conversations, they collectively decided to not give an interview due to their “mixed emotions” and fear of impacting their “careers as actors at SMC.”
SMC history and ethnic studies department
The history and ethnic studies department at SMC, one of the 14 organizations that supported the production’s cancelation, issued a statement: “The play’s depiction of slavery in antebellum America lacks grounding in evidence, scholarship, and reality.” They further cited the production’s portrayal of sexual violence, a “colonialist gaze on Black bodies and desire,” the use of racialized stereotypes and “plantation myths” and the impact on members of SMC’s Black community as some of the reasons for their advocacy.
“If we, at Santa Monica College, are building an educational institution that is rooted in equity, inclusion, and community, we must do better.”—SMC history and ethnic studies department statement on “By The River Rivanna”
The Corsair editor’s note: This article was updated on Nov. 1, 2023 at 9:05 a.m. to correct the name of the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). The article originally referred to the organization as Foundation for Individuals Rights in Education.