To start at the end, or at least where we are today: Michele Roberge, executive director of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on the campus of California State University, has resigned, effective yesterday. Why? Because the school’s president, Jane Close Conoley, insisted upon the cancelation of Roberge’s booking of the comedy N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk, a show that has toured extensively for more than a decade to performing arts centers on and off college campuses. In fact, it played to a sold out house of more than 1,000 seats last year at the Carpenter Center. When Conoley raised a red flag earlier this year, Roberge made it known that if Conoley forced the cancelation, she would resign on principle. And so when the axe fell, she did.
Like any show that has been touring for more than a decade, N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk, which was written by Steven T. Seagle and Liesel Reinhart with the men who originally performed it, Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal, and Miles Gregley (who are respectively black, Latinx and Asian) has a raft of reviews and feature stories available on their website attesting to the work’s broad appreciation. Despite its seemingly inflammatory title, Charles McNulty, reviewing it in 2007 for The Los Angeles Times, called it “wholesome entertainment,” going on to write, “Yes, racial slurs and profanity can sometimes be good for you – especially when they’re deployed to make a point about the pervasiveness of prejudice and its denigrating unabridged dictionary.” Other coverage has included a feature in The New York Times and an extended interview with National Public Radio’s Michele Norris.
When N*W*C was planned for last year at the Carpenter Center, Conoley, responding to concerns expressed by Naomi Rainey, president of the local branch of the NAACP, defending the piece, writing:
It is my hope that this performance will elicit conversation about issues of race, prejudice and inequality that the NAACP works so hard to confront. As president, it is my goal to push the envelope on matters of race and prejudice to ensure The Beach remains a safe haven for freedom of expression on this vitally important topic.
So why can’t the production be seen again? In lieu of an interview request or the opportunity to respond to questions via e-mail, Conoley writes:
Last year I welcomed the same performance to the Carpenter Center. My thoughts then were that it would generate thought-provoking conversations about race relations. The university and ASI subsidized students so that many were able to attend for free. I personally visited with many of our student cultural organizations to prepare them to use the performance as a prompt for meaningful discussions. Faculty members and student services staff members supported special activities before and after the performance.
Following the performance I evaluated whether or not it achieved that goal. Involved faculty and staff members and students shared feedback that the performance did not lead to the desired conversations. They further expressed a desire to find another performance vehicle to generate deep and much needed discussions about race and ethnicity.
When approached again to support NWC as a centerpiece of campus conversations, I indicated that while the performance could certainly go on as planned, I would not replicate the campus support I’d made available last year and did not have faculty or staff interested in doing curriculum planning around the performance.
I did not intend my decision as a form of censorship. As an academic, my decision was based on my evaluation of the academic value of the performance for our students. The Carpenter Center could have hosted the show without additional involvement from the University, but chose not to.
Conoley’s characterization of the Carpenter Center directly conflicts with Roberge’s telling. In a letter sent to donors and patrons of the Center, she wrote, “President Conoley required us to cancel our upcoming performance of N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk. I could not accept this egregious form of censorship.” According to Roberge, the instruction to cancel the show was delivered to her by the dean of the College of the Arts, Roberge’s direct supervisor, at Conoley’s direction.
In her resignation letter, dated late August, Roberge wrote to the dean of the College of the Arts, Cyrus Parker-Jeannette, saying:
The decision by President Conoley to cancel our upcoming performance of N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk runs counter to my steadfast belief in the protection of freedom for artists and my personal integrity as a performing arts presenter. This is an egregious act of censorship, especially ironic as it targets the home of The B-Word Project.
The B-Word Project: Banned ,Blacklisted and Boycotted, was a specially funded initiative held at the Carpenter Center in 2011-2012 focusing on censored works. It featured seminars and performances on the topic, and included the so-called “NEA Four” – Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller – whose 1990 grant applications for support from the National Endowment for the Arts were personally vetoed by NEA chairman John Frohnmeyer, contravening the NEA’s practice of peer review. It also included work from Bill T. Jones’s dance company. Roberge describes all of the work as “very sexual.”
Conoley was not president, or part of the CSULB community, during The B-Word Project.
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Regarding last year’s concerns about N*W*C from the NAACP, Roberge noted in an interview on Thursday that, “Nobody picketed. Nobody protested. In fact there was nary a peep from the NAACP when we announced this year’s show.”
Speaking about her original decision to present N*W*C said she conferred with the dean of the College of the Arts. “We wanted to spark conversations about race,” she says, “and it did that, beautifully.”
In the wake of the first presentation, Roberge says that there were some who didn’t believe the n-word should be heard on campus and didn’t feel it was the Carpenter Center’s place to open up a conversation about race. She notes “other racially charged incidents on campus which absolutely had nothing to do with the show,” and her belief that this heightened concerns regarding racial issues on campus. Referring to President Conoley, Roberge say, “I think those incidents frightened her.”
Roberge notes, “In conversation with the artists, we offered to postpone the show until after the election, and offer a lot of contextualizing educational activities – panel discussions with the ethnic chairs, films, lectures – so that interested students could attend those and have more of a context for how this show came about. But the president was not interested in that and said, ‘No, I don’t want the show.’”
Roberge says that over the summer, the dean of the College of the Arts was instructed by the president to speak with nine people, both on and off campus about N*W*C. “I was instructed not to speak with anyone about it,” she says. “The dean spoke with me about it and told me that all nine advised the president not to do the show. Nobody advocated for the show and they would not allow me to tell my side of the story and only one of them is nominally involved in the arts.”
Has Roberge ever been required to submit her programming for approval to anyone in the university administration? “The answer is no,” she says. “I was hired to curate the presented season at the Carpenter Center and oversee all of the rental activity as well. That being said, while I don’t have to get approval from anybody, every year when I have the season ready to go to our marketing director I schedule a meeting with the dean of the College of the Arts, who’s my boss, and I tell her about every show that I want to bring, so that she’s not surprised by anything. When we did N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk for the first time last year, I was very clear early in the process that this is what I wanted to do and she was 100% behind it.”
Asked whether there’s any policies regarding freedom of expression on campus, Roberge professed to know of none, adding, “There are no campus policies that limit freedom of expression.” She also references the presence of The Center for First Amendment Studies on the CSULB campus.
In a statement provided to the OC Weekly, Rafael Augustin of N*W*C, after expressing appreciation for Roberge’s efforts, wrote in part:
Please let it be known that we believe in the need for change as advocated by the Black Lives Matter movement and stand in solidarity with their commitment to achieving freedom and justice for all black lives.
We cannot ignore, however, that this occurrence also stands as critical juncture in the path of free speech on the campus of a public educational institution in perhaps our most liberal state. The same act of censorship that today may seem to protect a community may be used next time as justification to silence a community in desperate need of a voice.
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Returning to President Conoley’s statement that she did not intend her decision as a form of censorship, but rather as a result of the academic value of the performance for students, it’s important to note that Roberge was not faculty, but staff. Her role was not primarily to program for academic purposes, but to find work that would appeal to the campus community and the Long Beach community at large. If academic import is the criteria, one wonders what the pedagogical rationale is for such presentations as Four by Four: A Tribute to The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons and The Bee Gees or illusionist Jason Bishop, both on the Carpenter Center schedule this year. Or what about This is Americana! Live Comedy Slide Show Performance Celebrating Classic and Kitschy American Life & Style! Rather, it seems that the academic reasoning is being deployed specifically to silence N*W*C.
It seems clear that N*W*C did provoke conversations about race, but those that affected its now-canceled return engagement were held behind closed doors, and while students were off-campus. Will the nine people consulted about N*W*C hold sway over other bookings at the Carpenter Center in the future? Will Conoley now decide to personally sign off on programming? Will a search for Roberge’s successor be hindered by what has taken place over this show, or will the choice be made in such a way to drive all programming to the middle of the road, rather than engaging in the kind of envelope-pushing Conoley professed to support in her letter to the NAACP last July?
Having refused interviews from every media outlet that has requested them, up to and including the Los Angeles Times, Conoley is walling herself off behind statements rather than engaging and explaining her rationale. We don’t even know whether she saw the show. She made a decision and while citing conversations but not sharing them in any detail, imposed it with little transparency, and sees little need to defend it further. As the final authority on that campus, she directed conversations about the work of the Carpenter Center to take place without the participation of the center’s director, and so far as anyone knows, she did not consult with cultural experts directly familiar with the production from off-campus or the many other universities where the show has played. Yes, campus conversations about race have evolved since the show was first produced, but was that the root of the problem?
As it stands, Conoley has lost a 14-year veteran of the university who stood up for her principles, while silencing perhaps the most provocative performance of the season, which happens to be a theatrical work by artists of color around issues of color. She has done so without a full explanation of her concerns and reasoning. She may not want to be seen as a censor, but it’s hard not to arrive at that conclusion.