ATW’s Howard Sherman Asks for Cessation of Censorship of August Wilson Play

AP IMAGE - DON'T USE Performing "How I Learned What I Learned" in 2004

UPDATE: The board overruled the superintendent — and now the play will go on. It’s unquestionably the right thing to do.

The executive director of the American Theatre Wing, Howard Sherman, has made public a strong, impassioned and well-worded letter to the members of the board of education of Waterbury, Connecticut, counseling against shutting down a school production of August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at its Arts Magnet School.

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Performing his one-man play, “How I Learned What I Learned,” in Aspen in 2004

As noted in a previous post, at issue is Wilson’s use of the “n” word in the play, which is set in the 1910s, and the belief of the school system’s superintendent, David Snead, that the way to combat hate speech is by censorship.

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The fact that Wilson earned two more Pulitzer prizes for drama than Snead does not seem to enter much into the picture. Moreover, as these letters to the editor of the local Waterbury newspaper make abundantly clear, Snead’s position is untenable, upsetting, fraught with peril and, in the end, does precious little to accomplish his otherwise laudable goal: the eradication of the “n” word, with all of its horrendous historical baggage and implications, from everyday speech.

Folks, I yield to no one in my visceral hatred for hate speech.

I also believe in free speech. I believe the more we invest speech with the power to hurt, the more it hurts. I believe the one surefire way to defang speech is to use it, appropriately.

Sherman, in my view, speaks eloquently to the idea that eviscerating the First Amendment doesn’t end hate speech:

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It is not my intention to offer a blanket defense of “the n-word,” any more than I would defend epithets against Latinos, Asian Americans, Christians, Jews, Muslims or any ethnic or religious group. But what I do defend are the words so carefully chosen by August Wilson, one of the great playwrights America has ever produced, and unquestionably the finest African-American playwright in our country’s history.

I would offer one slight adjustment to that last sentence:

Wilson was unquestionably one of the country’s finest playwrights, period.

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If the board members allow Snead to proceed, shutting down the production, hate speech actually wins. And who loses? The children. And the teacher, Nina A. Smith, who clearly went above and beyond the call of duty to prepare students and parents and community leaders and, indeed, her own established pedagogical hierarchy for the mounting of Wilson’s play.

Between this situation and the sanitizing of Mark Twain, I weep for the nation. Maybe Snead will try to teach students that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, too. After all, if he can assert the power to change history, to alter the English language used by one of its great dramatic poets, there are no limits on what he might do.

That won’t serve our children, especially those performing the play, who obviously know better than Snead.

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As I wrote previously:

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…how do we educate our children about the history of language, the history of ethnic slurs in language, and all the weight it carries, if we keep children ignorant about it?

And who is Snead to decide that the work August Wilson – who isn’t alive to defend himself and thus cannot debate the use of the “N” word in the play (which is set in the 1910s) – shouldn’t be performed or seen by the youth of Waterbury? How do we stamp out racism if we don’t enlighten our children to its existence? What empirical evidence is there that you can sensitize Americans to the power of language by stamping it out? Isn’t that what President Obama’s oration in Tucson the other day was all about?

But Sherman puts it far more eloquently than I:

Great art is not always pretty, or easy, or even correct. But if students are denied the work of August Wilson, it is not just bowdlerizing the words of a work in the public domain, available in countless other editions (like Twain). They may be denied an opportunity to embody the history, literature and artistry that August Wilson brought to the stage, and cordoning off the world of one of America’s greatest theatrical voices from those most eager to explore it and those who would undoubtedly benefit from it. That this could happen only a few miles from where Wilson’s work was first heard by theatergoers before going on to national and international fame would be an added insult.