NCAC Calls for Burnsville, MN City Officials to Apologize for Cancelling Play with 'Mulatto' in Title
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, two organizations committed to defending creative freedom, are calling on City officials of Burnsville, Minnesota, to make amends for refusing to allow the performance of a play with the word 'mulatto' in the title.
The groups stress that the City cannot cancel a play based on a word in its title that some may consider distasteful or offensive.
For their 2017-18 season, the Chameleon Theatre Circle, a tenant in the city-ownEd Ames Center in Burnsville, MN, arranged to produce Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales ('Pandas') by Derek ('Duck') Washington, an award winning sketch comedy based on Washington's perspective on life as a biracial individual in America.
When Chameleon sent its list of titles for the upcoming season to the Ames Center Director, Brian Luther, Luther demanded Chameleon remove the word 'mulatto' from Washington's play or face cancellation, deeming the word "extremely offensive" and "derogatory". When Washington refused to change his title, Luther took matters to the city council, who agreed with his stance. In response, Chameleon ended its relationship with the Ames Center.
The groups' letter criticizes the city's response, stressing that if all expression deemed likely to cause offense or pain was barred, "public discourse and debate would be radically impoverished." This is precisely why the First Amendment protects artistic freedom. By cancelling Pandas, the City deprives the Burnsville community of an opportunity to discuss and reflect on important and timely issues the play raises, such as race, identity and otherness in America.
The letter demands a public apology from the City of Burnsville and urges the City to develop a formal policy governing artistic programming at the Ames Center to ensure it is in compliance with First Amendment requirements. The groups offer to assist the City in formulating the policy.
"Although we were happy to hear the neighboring city of Bloomington has arranged to perform the play in response to Burnsville's cancellation, it further proves the arbitrary nature of the initial decision," said NCAC's Arts Advocacy Program Associate Joy Garnett. "It also sends a harmful message that artistic freedom is not welcome in Burnsville, and so we urge the City to affirm its support for core First Amendment principles."
Read the letter here and in full below:
"May 4, 2017
To the Honorable Mayor Kautz:
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), founded in 1974, is an alliance of over 50 national nonprofit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups dedicated to promoting the right to free speech. The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund (DLDF), formed as a nonprofit arm of the Dramatists Guild of America, advocates on behalf of dramatists, theaters, audiences, and all those in the culture at large who are confronting censorship on stages across America. NCAC and DLDF write to the City of Burnsville to express our concern over the cancellation of Minneapolis-based playwright Derek ('Duck') Washington's play Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales ('Pandas') by the city- ownEd Ames Center due to opposition to the word 'mulatto' in its title. The Ames Center's rejection of the play solely because of distaste towards a word in the title raises serious First Amendment concerns.
The following is our understanding of the facts; please inform us if you believe we are in error.
Pandas is a comedy performed by five actors (including the playwright, Derek Washington) that offers the playwright's perspective on the experience of growing up 'mulatto' (bi-racial) in America. In Washington's words, the play is "a collection of stories inspired by my life being biracial. The humorous and the awkward, funny and sad moments that have made me the person I am today." Previously, Pandas successfully appeared in the 2016 Minnesota Fringe Festival; it was the tenth-highest grossing play in the Festival and received critical accolades as well as nominations for 'Best Play' and 'Best Director.' Washington was voted 'Best Actor in a Play' for his performance.
Based on Pandas' success, the Chameleon Theatre Circle, a tenant in the Ames Center's black box theatre, invited Washington to produce Pandas for their 2017-18 season at the Ames Center. But when Chameleon sent the list of titles for its upcoming season to Ames Center Director Brian Luther, Luther responded with the demand that Chameleon remove the word 'mulatto' from Pandas' title or he would cancel the play. He deemed the word 'mulatto' to be "inappropriate," "derogatory," and "extremely offensive," and reasoned that its appearance on the Center's marquee and in marketing materials would have a compromising effect on ticket sales.
Washington refused to change the title of his play, stating it was not an aesthetically sound choice, and that it would be confusing and therefore difficult to leverage the play's previous success in the absence of its original title. Chameleon supported Washington in his decision, standing up for their right to produce works they feel are worthy without outside meddling.
Luther took the problem to city council members, recommending that the play be removed from the schedule if the word 'mulatto' remained in its title. City officials backed his decision. Partially in response to the rejection of the play, Chameleon ended their relationship with the Center and will be leaving the space.
The Ames Center's cancellation of the show illustrates precisely why First Amendment protections are needed: While Mr. Luther may personally find the word 'mulatto' offensive and worry that potential ticket buyers may react similarly, city officials are barred by the First Amendment from suppressing expression that could potentially generate offense. If all expression that could cause pain or disturb were to be suppressed, public discourse and debate would be radically impoverished, and hope for open dialogue on difficult topics would be imperiled.
The cancellation of Pandas jeopardizes the creative freedom of Duck Washington and contributes to marginalizing the unique perspectives of members of the biracial community; it also deprives the Burnsville public of the opportunity to view and enjoy the play, removing the possibility for a much-needed conversation about race, identity, and otherness.
After reading about the play's cancellation in local news outlets, Bloomington Center for the Arts, a public facility in the town five miles north of Burnsville, has invited Washington to produce the Pandas as part of their 2018 season. Burnsville's lost opportunity has become Bloomington's gain, and the arbitrary nature of the decision to cancel the play has been made all the more clear.
While the new production is a victory for the artist and the company, it also sends the message that artistic freedom is welcome elsewhere but not in the City of Burnsville. To counteract this impression, we hope the City takes positive measures to reaffirm its support for core First Amendment principles:
NCAC and DLDF demand a public apology from the City for restricting the creative freedom of Duck Washington and the Chameleon Theater Circle. We also strongly urge the City to develop a formal policy governing artistic programming at the Ames Center to ensure that it is in compliance with First Amendment requirements. We would be happy to assist you in drafting such a policy.
Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs National Coalition Against Censorship
Ralph Sevush, Executive Director & Officer Dramatists Legal Defense Fund"