The Dramatists Guild Joins With Other Groups in Condemning Cancellation of Play at Santa Monica College

The letter is signed by PEN America, the Dramatists Guild, Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, and National Coalition Against Censorship

By: Dec. 06, 2023
The Dramatists Guild Joins With Other Groups in Condemning Cancellation of Play at Santa Monica College

Below is a joint letter sent to the president of Santa Monica College regarding the school’s cancellation of the play By the River Rivanna by G. Bruce Smith. While the letter recounts the facts and addresses the issue of academic freedom implicated by the school’s actions, at the heart of this matter is a violation of the rights of the playwright, G. Bruce Smith, whose work was judged before a finished version of it had been read or seen.

  In writing the play, Mr. Smith (a white male) watched videos from the Smithsonian to make sure he accurately reflected the history of the period, as well as the modes of speech of the characters.  He had the script reviewed and approved by African American consultants, including a playwright and a historian. He then worked with the director to make numerous revisions to the play in response to possible audience concerns. 

Despite his efforts, the school newspaper published the unfinished script (in violation of his copyright) prior to the production and, subsequently, African American student groups on campus complained to the administration, arguing that neither Smith nor the director (herself a woman of color) had any right to tell this story because of their respective ethnicities. So this issue goes beyond the sensitivity, accuracy, or even the quality inherent in the text of the play; it is about who has a right to tell a story and who gets to decide. And, while that may be a valid topic for debate AFTER the play has been seen, ethnicity is not a legitimate pretext for silencing any author. See the play first, then argue about it.  Any other strategy constitutes a “heckler’s veto” and violates the constitutional principles of free expression.

- The Dramatists Guild and The Dramatists Legal Defense Fund

Read the letter below:

Dear President Jeffery:

We write to you as a coalition of free expression organizations to object to the cancellation of the play By the River Rivanna in October. 

As a public institution, Santa Monica College is required to uphold the free expression rights of faculty and students. Theater directors enjoy the academic freedom to choose which works to assign in their courses. We are concerned that this freedom was violated by the school’s cancellation of By the River Rivanna in response to community protest and administrative coercion. While we respect that students involved in the production ultimately voted to cancel the public presentation of the play, we are concerned about the role of administrative pressure in shaping the outcome. The cancellation harmed both the academic freedom of the director, Perviz Sarowski, and the College community’s ability to see, critique, and react to artistic expression. It is a further violation of the rights of the playwright, G. Bruce Smith, whose work was judged before a finished version of it had been read or seen.

As we understand the facts, the play is about an interracial romance between a white male plantation owner and an enslaved Black man in the 1800s. Some student groups quickly condemned it for “trafficking in stereotypic tropes” and lacking respect for students with African ancestry; many also objected to the racial identities of the playwright and director, despite Smith’s extensive research. Following the backlash, the school instituted a round of voting by the cast in order to determine if the show should go on. Students initially voted to continue or slightly delay the production; a second vote, held to determine if the play should be presented only for friends and family, passed by majority rule. Because eight of the 21 cast members voted against it, the play was ultimately canceled, against the desire of the majority of the cast.

To our knowledge, such a voting process was instituted on an ad hoc basis in response to controversy and does not follow any established protocol within the department or the college. We are concerned by reports of administrative coercion, as well as the appearance of putting a faculty member’s academic freedom up to a vote and ignoring the needs of the majority of the cast.  We are further concerned that the playwright’s ethnicity was at issue; who has a right to tell a story and who gets to decide is an important debate, but it can never be a pretext for censorship.

Choosing to cancel the play days before production not only took away the students’ access to a genuine dialogue, but it also denied audiences the opportunity to engage with the material and protesters’ opportunity to make their opposition heard. Art is an invitation to public dialogue -- even on controversial issues. Only by bringing these ideas out into the light of day can they be vetted, discussed, critiqued or even rejected. 

We recognize that the play can no longer go on in its original form, as it was tied to the academic calendar. We urge the administration to help the theater department locate an alternative venue for the play, and to create clear policies for when and how theater productions will be chosen.

As a public college, Santa Monica College should have in place clear and consistent policies for artistic expression, to ensure that the College’s actions do not run afoul of the First Amendment. It is imperative that such policies are evenly applied in the future, and that students and faculty in the theater department are able to enjoy the fullest extent of their artistic and academic freedom.


PEN America
Dramatists Guild
Dramatists Legal Defense Fund
National Coalition Against Censorship

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