Cultural Sensitivity or Censorship? Three Tales, Many Questions

The terrorist killing of French cartoonists was so shocking that it might seem offensive, at least initially, to pair that story with two happening in North Carolina.

Tonight was the culmination of a story that began last Fall when the drama students of Maiden High School in Catawba County picked “Almost, Maine” to put on in their school.

Principal Robert Bliss approved the production but, after talking to pastor Mark Ivey of Christ Alive Church in nearby Newton, Bliss canceled it — a decision that has gotten national attention. The reason for the cancelation? One scene between two men, which I describe in my review of a New York City production of Almost, Maine – they literally fall in love with one another (fall down on the ground), much to their own surprise.

“We just felt like the public system isn’t the place to promote those kinds of things among teenagers and that was our concern and that was why we applauded the principal for making the decision to remove it from the high school,” pastor Mark Ivey told WFAE in Charlotte.

As the radio station reports “local community theater people like Carmen Eckard have made sure the play will see an opening night. She led a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $6,605. Playwright John Cariani waved the licensing fees for the play. And local theater members like director Bill Morgan have donated their time to help the students.” The result – the show opened tonight

Meanwhile, three days ago and less than 200 miles away, the Raleigh Little Theatre announced that it was canceling Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, replacing it with a run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The reason for the cancelation? Objections by local Native Americans to the depiction of Indians in the musical.

“In our community, where there’s such a vibrant Native American community, part of our mission is to be a welcoming place that enriches and engages the community,” artistic director Patrick Torres told Indy Week  “So it’s not really an issue of censorship. It’s more an idea of living out our mission.”

And then of course there is the much more publicized story of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – not a theater story, but one that raises many questions for theater people as for other communities

We had a #newplay Twitter chat earlier today sponsored by Howlround, which I moderated, entitled After #CharlieHebdo—Cultural Sensitivity vs Censorship vs Artistic Freedom” It came after I reviewed a show called Burq Off, a one-woman autobiographical show written and performed by Nadia P. Manzoor who sees herself as having escaped  from a conservative Muslim upbringing. (Can A Play Explain The Muslim Diaspora?)

An edited selection of questions and comments:

Todd Backus: I think it’s a complicated issue as Charlie Hebdo walks a fine line between satire and hate speech. Would we have felt differently if Charlie Hebdo were consistently blaspheming Christians with upside down crosses?

Jonathan Mandell: What is hate speech? Is it clearly defined? Is one person’s hate speech another’s free expression/satire?

Todd Backus: I think the difference is somewhere between constructive criticism and tearing something apart.

J Adrian Verkouteren: If free speech doesn’t protect bad taste (or even offensiveness) then it doesn’t exist

 Todd Backus: I think free speech can protect bad taste but I don’t think we need to celebrate it….

 Jonathan Mandell: When does cultural sensitivity become censorship, or are they the same thing with two different labels, based on differing perspectives?

 Jane Margulies Kalbfeld: I reject censorship but encourage sensitivity. Images prompt gut reactions as strongly as words

 Yoni Oppenheim: When trying to be sensitive, we need to be careful that you are not simply empowering the most violent voice in the room.

Todd Backus: Censorship is: You can’t say that. Censorship is not: I don’t like that you said that.

 Jonathan Mandell: How does one decide when being offensive crosses the line? Are there rules to this? And #who decides?

Todd Backus: A person in power doesn’t get to decide when they are being offensive to a minority. Men don’t decide what’s sexist….I’d also say there’s a difference between a noble risk in agit-prop theater for change and joking at another’s expense

J Adrian Verkouteren: Who gets to decide the difference between pointless joking and pertinent satire? Terrorists?

Todd Backus: I feel that satire points out problems that we have accepted as facts.

J Adrian Verkouteren  WE have accepted as facts? That’s the problem: who is “we”? That’s not free speech….

Todd Backus: Popular culture…

Adrian Verkouteren: While we worry about violence in Paris, free speech is increasingly in danger on college campuses and elsewhere

An interesting article in Vox:

What everybody gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism , which compares the double layer of satire — requiring knowledge of French politics — to the two layers necessary to understand the cover of the 2008 New Yorker when Obama was running for President — how the magazine was making fun of Obama’s critics rather than making fun of the Obamas.



Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “Cultural Sensitivity or Censorship? Three Tales, Many Questions

  1. The story of Maiden HS stands in contrast to that of Truman HS in Levittown, described in Michael Sokolove’ book DRAMA HIGH, which chronicles the career of Lou Volpe in making that theater program a standout both in terms of its quality and its courageous scope.

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