Controversy Surrounding Racist Themes in Fall Play

The Fall play Epic Proportions has sparked a lot of talk around campus in recent weeks. Controversy regarding the content of the play has been surrounding the production, even before auditions were held.

According to Professor Jim Quinn, the director of the show, “the story is, these two brothers go out to become part of this low budget epic Egyptian movie that’s being made in the Arizona desert in the 1930’s, and they want to get into the film business…It ends up it’s such a low-budget production that it’s falling apart and the brothers end up starring in the play and one of them taking over as director. It’s, um, it’s a complicated piece.” 

According to a cast member, who wishes to remain anonymous, “There are a couple particular scenes that even other actors and myself feel uncomfortable with. To start with, the play as written showcases many racial stereotypes with people of Egyptian descent. There is a scene with a slavemaster who is supposed to be whipping people of Egyptian descent,” the actor explained. “One of the people in our show is a Black woman playing the role of ‘Slavemaster’ and the role of ‘Egyptian Dancing Girl.’ There is a mixed man who is playing a character, playing as a slave. A lot of the lines in the show seem very out of touch with where we are today. Three White actors play Egyptian characters shouting misogynistic lines.”

Students both in the production and outside take issue with these aspects of the show. 

Epic Proportions was not the original plan, though Quinn described it as the “backup” after there were issues with obtaining the rights for The Play That Goes Wrong. He described it as “just a funny comedy…It’s kind of a love letter from the authors to the movies.”

However, Quinn adjusted his description when asked about the controversy, stating he had no idea about the issues students have been having with the show, explaining that “it’s a comedy. It’s a farce and it’s satire… the only part with the slaves are when they’re building the pyramids and they’re supposed to be lugging- it’s supposed to be a film, remember. It’s a movie about the movie business, and about those epic movies, so it’s a satire about that… We’re not promoting it, we’re mocking it.” 

Written in the eighties, Larry Cohen satirizes the cultural insensitivity within the movie business some fifty years prior, specifically in Biblical epics like The Sign of The Cross (1932). The show was meant to poke fun at some of the tropes in these films, such as White actors being cast to portray people of color and the fetishization of “exotic” cultures. Cohen aims to show these tropes in a negative light. Quinn stated that “those of us in the arts, we have to be able to address tough issues but do it in a way that makes it palatable so that we can listen to it and talk about it.”

Our source from within the cast, however, asked, “Why would anyone want to make a mockery of race? Although I hope that is not the intention with how this show is being performed and in the cast, I think that this could be done better.” This leads to a bigger question: should this show have been approved to perform at BSU in the first place?

Miranda Giurleo, head of the theatre department, stated, “The play does not try to justify these actions, but instead uses physical humor of the 1930s (Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, etc.) to poke fun at the exaggerated nature of some of the “epic” films of the past. The play is not an attempt at cultural appropriation of clothing or customs of other regions, it points out the ridiculousness of those who did just that in the 30s by showing the low budget efforts at costuming and scenic construction. The scenic designer and costume designer for our production have accounted for this in their simplified designs, meant to depict failed and haphazard attempts at grand movie sets and costuming rather than the lavish and expensive sets and costumes of Gone With The Wind, and Cleopatra (both flawed epic films from the 1930s).”

Bridgewater State University’s mission statement reads: Bridgewater State University is an inclusive community dedicated to the lifelong success of all students, focused on the continuous improvement of its people, and responsible for leading innovation that benefits Southeastern Massachusetts, the commonwealth, and the world.

So this begs the question, were these values upheld?

A student within the theatre department who also wishes to remain anonymous, says no.

“I don’t believe this show should’ve been picked to be performed here at BSU. From my knowledge, no one who was cast in the show is of Egyptian or Middle Eastern heritage. Those that were cast should not be playing those specific characters…It’s about the intent and who’s performing it,” stated the student.

Similarly, our source from within the cast said that “there’s so much that could’ve been done. With everyone’s advanced degrees and school, I have to question how and why this was approved. Did they simply not read the script? Or did it not matter?” 

These critiques of the show started before the cast list was even finalized. Our student source had this to say: “Prior to auditions, I read a short synopsis of the play. I was left upset and bewildered by some of the content of the show. One scene portraying a slave and a slavemaster. I particularly felt uncomfortable auditioning for a show with a scene as such. Along with the fact that the show is set in the 1930’s…a majority White cast is portraying Middle Easterners and Egyptians while stereotyping their culture. I didn’t want to put myself in that position, especially since that is not my ethnicity, nor my culture.” 

“Our season selection process is lengthy and begins in the fall of the prior academic year as we determine directors for each of the shows in the next season.  Once directors have been identified from within our faculty, full-time faculty meet to discuss the curricular needs from a production standpoint… This process often includes soliciting input and suggestions from the student body,” explained Giurleo. “I am not sure if this process occurred last spring as it was our first season selection process since returning to campus and the selection process took on additional levels of planning…Epic Proportions, being a farcical, physical comedy with flexible roles for more than 10 actors, was our second choice and met the same curricular needs as our original choice.”

Quinn expressed that “the weird thing is, as far as I know, only our cast knows about this play and nobody in the cast has come to me with any of this and that’s probably the worst thing. If it’s something going on and the cast is not coming to the director that’s probably the worst thing you can do in the theater…the cast doesn’t seem to have any issues with it. So I don’t know if it’s friends of theirs who don’t know the play who started this rumor…but that’s another dangerous thing.”

Quinn went on to explain that he believes the facts are being distorted. 

However, our source from within the cast says they haven’t brought anything up to faculty because “I fear retaliation. I do not want faculty or other students to think of me differently because of my relation with the show.”

Our student source expressed something similar: “The theater department is a small one, and a majority of the students and staff are well aware of one another. Issues quickly move their way up the grapevine.”

At the end of the day, the cast and crew of Epic Proportions are still working hard to put on a good show. Our source from within the cast claimed, “I’m not asking people to overlook the words and lines that are uncomfortable, but I do hope that people can see the work that we went through to put this show together, and to at least cause a laugh here and there.” 

Epic Proportions opens on October 21st.

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