NWC: The Race Play Controversy

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In September, the university brought to campus N*gger
Wetb*ck Ch*nk: The Race Play, touted as an effective educational
tool for engaging difficult issues of race. Many
across the country herald this production as a grass-roots
phenomenon. But it seems that the title alone creates controversy.
Yet, the actors claim that “this factor is a fantastic
opportunity to start the dialogue, so people can become a
little more at ease talking about issues of race.
“People ask us all the time, ‘Why did it have to be
these words? Couldn’t you just call it “African American/
Latin American/Chinese?”’ My answer to that is
why not these words? What is it that people are so
afraid of? It’s a shame that someone’s day is ruined if
they see a poster of ours. When people are offended it’s
because of their own experiences they’ve had with these
words. We’re not out to offend anyone, and we’re not
using these words against people. When the three of us
got together, the title just came and it was perfect: These
are the words we’ve been dealing with our whole lives.”
The event helped to kick off the administration’s Inclusive
Illinois: One Campus Many Voices initiative. The following
are commentaries submitted by students, faculty,
and community members about the controversial event.

The Administration’s
Solution to Our Ills
Cassidy C Browning is an activist theatre scholar and artist.
Browning is now in the second year of the M.A. in Theatre
program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
I received an email on September 16 from the Office of
the Dean of Students stating that, “tickets [for NWC] are
being held for you or for representatives of your organization.”
It did not specify for which group I was being singled
out, how these groups were identified, or how I was
identified as a member.
The email simply detailed how I could purchase one of
these held tickets for a discounted price. The “Office of the
Dean of Students has obtained a limited number of UI student
tickets to ensure that as many students as possible have
an opportunity to view the performance if they wish and to
engage in critical examination and thoughtful dialogue.”
As the groups of which I am a part are linked by their
“activist” goals, I gleaned that the Office of the Dean was
reaching out to campus activists, or those likely to have
strong positions about the performance, to attend. The fact
that grassroots groups, cultural houses, and the racialized
studies programs were not in favor of or questioned the production
threatened the validity of the administration’s effort.
Moreover, the lukewarm to hostile reception of Inclusive
Illinois most likely compounded the need for this outreach.
I detail this process because it was clear that the UIUC
administration (including the Krannert Center) purported
this show as a solution to issues of racial oppression and
privilege on the UIUC campus, though company members
professed that the piece was merely a comedy dealing with
personal experiences.
The Theatre Company markets itself as an educational
tool and is available for residencies and workshops, which
is the capacity in which UIUC engaged the group. Their
website states that, “School and community outreach as
well as artist-in-residence programs are a fundamental
component of our work as we strive to enhance cultural
awareness, acceptance, and risk-taking.” Unfortunately,
those in attendance at events, which featured discussion
with the company members, found the experience to
enhance anything but awareness and acceptance.
The production originated as a performance vehicle for
Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal, and Miles Gregley. These
three actors of color were systemically excluded from the
casting processes at UCLA, and so created their own performance
opportunity with NWC, based on lived experience.
This show, which was originally scheduled to run for
one weekend, extended its run and began playing professionally
in LA, before touring the United States for the past
three years. A non-professional student production has
become a professional, educational touring show and residency
package, complete with t-shirts and buttons for
purchase outside of the theatre.
Steven T. Seagle, one of two white co-writers and codirectors
of NWC, was present at the community and University
discussions with the performers. I found his role in
the company and specifically during discussion extremely
problematic and harmful. At several such events, Seagle
implied that the three performers should not be critically
questioned about their work, because performers of color
are so rare. At other events he demeaned questions regarding
the performative effect of the work, which came off as a
patronizing effort to protect the performers and the piece.
A section of the performance is called “The Night I was
Gay.” It is about Alan’s experience of questioning whether
he was gay, as so many people had told him. When a question
arose after the performance about his story’s stereotypical
representation of homosexuality, Alan replied, “I
feel it was very brave to share this story. A lot of people
wouldn’t have shared that story.” The audience was again
told that they had no place to question these individuals or
their representation of identity.
Several questions and comments were about the performative
effect of representing these stereotypes. One
person asked about the pleasure expressed in their consumption
and another whether invoking the stereotypes
reinforces them in the cultural imagination. The performers
expressed no discomfort in the laughter and consumption
of the show’s content, and seemed to care little
about the effect on the audience, even when people of
color see white audience members joyfully consuming the
slurs and imagery.
The most upsetting moment for me was when Rafael
Agustin equated the level of concern about their show
with there being more race problems in this area. This
effectively silenced and demeaned any discontent or critical
engagement with the piece and the artists, by stating
that any such expression was merely indicative of racism.
Yet, on a campus where racial masquerade has been
and continues to be endorsed, sold, reinforced, and commodified,
the community is bound to have a more complex
understanding of how stereotypes function. They will
also be especially weary when told that this particular case
is a positive use of stereotypes and epithets.
The most blunt and perhaps most astute comment
made, likened NWC to minstrelsy. Understandably, this
was upsetting for the performers to hear. Less understandably,
however, was for a group of artists in residence at the
University to allow their personal emotions to stunt their
ability to critically engage with the conversations, which
they claim to foster and desire. The basic claim of minstrelsy
was based on the observation that these performers
are commissioned to perform in stereotypical roles (either
as “race educators” or the stereotypes which they embody
in performance), which those in power are comfortable
The show began with an announcement asking patrons
to turn off their cell phones followed by, “Above all, remember
that this is a comedy.” People’s lived experiences with
these words and stereotypes are not comical, nor does the
genre, content, or ethnicity of the performers dismiss the
violence they engender or the right to critical engagement.
Poor Decisions Disrupt
Community Trust
Amira Davis is a resident of Champaign Urbana and the
founder and director/ instructor of the Afrikan-American
Cultural Arts Program.
By now, anyone who has spoken with African-Americans
associated with the theater department realizes that the
unilateral scheduling of NWC is only part of the problem.
For example, the upcoming plays on Africa have either
been written by non-Blacks and will be directed by non-
Blacks or in the one instance where the writers are Black,
the play will be directed by a novice non-Black.
Other issues, aside from a lack of inclusive non-white
voices on the productions at KCPA, include having Black
actors and actresses play compromising roles: one in which a Black actor has been “blind casted” into a Tennessee Williams’ role in which he must use
the ‘N’ word repeatedly.
As an artist, I am sensitive to the role that art and culture play in the liberatory efforts
of subjugated groups. In that same respect, I am acutely aware of the lack of performance
spaces for African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos in the community that hosts
this university. As a result, Krannert has an obligation to ensure, as “the” performance
venue for Champaign County, that programming decisions do not merely reflect diversity,
as viewed from the perspective of Mike Ross or others who are not members of marginalized
communities. Instead they must take into account the types of art that truly
reflect diversity and divergent ideas.
To that end, I feel that a stronger statement should be made with regards to the fall
schedule of events at KCPA, beyond just boycotting the performance and the talkbacks
associated with NWC. Perhaps a more visible presence, the nights of the performance,
will be more efficacious in sending Mike the message that if he wants to trust (as he indicated
last year during the Katrina events), he needs to first be trustworthy. This entails
being responsive to the needs of all consumers of art & culture.
Challenging the Wasteland of Racism
D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark (Meskwaki) is Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at
UIUC and co-editor of the Indigenous Futures Series at the University of Nebraska Press.
The Krannert Cultural Performance Arts programming decisions, including the current presentation
of NWC: The Race Play, reflect a three-part core problem at this historically white
university: 1) The lingering residue of historical white privilege; 2) the intergenerational
post-traumatic stress of unhealed trauma caused by heterosexist, misogynist white-inspired
and perpetrated forms of violence and colonialism; and 3) the neo-liberal structures
through which power and privileges are distributed today and into unforeseeable future.
Panning outward to a broader context, the Chancellor’s Inclusive Campus initiative, in
the end will fall far short of creating social justice. It will do so, because the most counterhegemonic
events will likely have the smallest audiences, reaching mostly those people
who are already calling for redistribution of institutional power and a flattening of institutional
privileges at this university and the broader society.
Reflecting the mainstream ethos of this initiative, Mike Ross and the KCPA programming
certainly will bring good people together who, basking in the joys and exoticism of
liberal multiculturalism, will frolic with their people-of-color allies in the wastelands of
overt racisms and subtle micro-aggressions. This was made evident by Ross’ impenitent
explanation of his choices when challenged and the hierarchical structure through which
his decisions are made. Unfortunately, this “race play” is not likely to move the university
even one-millimeter closer to the much needed and long-overdue structural changes.
Left to Answer Sloppy Questions
Genevieve Tenoso is a Lakota/Ojibwe tribally enrolled, and a PhD student in anthropology
at UIUC. Her work centers on Native representation and decolonization theory.
I inadvertently purchased a ticket to the Wednesday evening NWC show; and after I had
committed to going, I became aware of the controversial nature of the event. I found the
overuse of the words NWC to be unnecessary. While I might find celebration in witnessing
a performance by a cast of people of color, their messages were not new.
During the post-show discussion the cast had trouble with critiques raised by other
people of color who found the performance offensive and ineffective. The context of the
UIUC campus climate and the sophistication of the audience’s understanding of race were
factors the cast evidently failed to consider.
The performance-venue sale table of show souvenirs, defensive promotion “we have
performed for over 60,000 people”, and the cast’s inability to articulate a more nuance
discussion about race and racism caused me to question their self-proclaimed educational
Audience numbers and popularity alone cannot stand for success, when using such
inflammatory language, in light of its damaging history. Even worse, when the NWC
Company leaves town, the rest of us have to do the work of answering their sloppy
posed questions.
We are Weary of White Arrogance
Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is Director of the African American Studies and Research Program
and is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at UIUC. He is the author of
America’s First Black Town, Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915.
I, in concert with the faculty of the African American Studies and Research Program,
adamantly opposed the NWC: The Race Play performance. After reading and viewing their
material, I found the routine simplistic and shortsighted. Apparently, the production aims
to challenge personal prejudices, by performing stereotypes and using offensive racial slurs.
Though I have no doubt that these words are still widely used as slurs today, they are mostly
used in all-white settings and rarely make their way into the public discourse today.
I suppose engagement with racial slurs has some value, though NWC’s method is
greatly flawed. After massive usage of these slurs, they simply proclaim that African
Americans, Latino/as and Asian Americans are not the stereotypes depicted. Then reminiscent
of Rodney King, they naively argue that there is just one race. Moreover, they
seem to have no conceptualization of institutional racism, which is what we mainly confront
at UIUC.
NWC is at best hopelessly naïve and at worst insidious. The routines are not good
comedy. The trio lacks the sophistication of Dave Chapelle or Chris Rock or even Carlos
Mencia, who though offensive, are occasionally funny. But even Chapelle discovered that
despite his sophisticated critique of racial oppression, his white audience did not “get it.”
Hence, it’s doubtful that the negative impact of this “play” can be blunted. Especially when
the performers seem devoid of an understanding of the complicated nature of racial
oppression and are presenting poorly conceptualized material.
The NAACP recently performed a symbolic burial of the N-word, movements to ban it
have emerged at schools in several states and cities have passed resolutions either banning
the use of the word or urging their citizens to voluntarily refrain from using it. I find
it curious that just as a movement develops to ban the N-word, this series of skits emerges
as a darling of the campus newspapers and the mainstream press.
Finally, I am dismayed that Mike Ross made the decision to bring a “play” which even
he agrees is controversial, without first consulting people of color on campus and in the
community, especially those who study, teach and regularly engage these issues. Why
weren’t the racialized studies programs and cultural centers engaged before a commitment
was made to bring this parody to our campus? I, for example, was only “consulted”
after Ross learned that the Krannert Art Museum refused to schedule a collaboration
between NWC and SPEAK Café because our program opposed the performance. Given
all that happened on campus last year, how do you make this kind of decision without
consulting the victims of racism?
The point is that we are weary of white arrogance. And the decision to impose this
“play” on us without consultation represents the height of white liberal arrogance! I do not
doubt the good intentions of the decision-makers. But, unfortunately, African Americans
and people of color will suffer the consequences of the institution’s bad decision. What
happens when members of ZBT or the Tri-Deltas complain that they were disciplined
(however lightly) for doing the same thing—”parodying” racialized minority groups?
Creating a Truly Progressive Cultural
Faculty of the Asian American Studies Program. The following is an excerpt from their collective
statement on the issue of the NWC performance.
As a program that aims to provide students with the critical tools to examine racist and
racialized everyday and spectacular images, situations and meanings, the Asian American
Studies Program neither endorses a boycott of the Speak Theater Arts production of
NWC: The Race Play nor tacitly approves of the performance. Instead, we strongly believe
that the University of Illinois community should take this opportunity, and the unfolding
controversy, and transform them both into teaching moments.
The controversy around the Speak Theater Arts production of NWC speaks to larger
issues of representation in programming at the University. There are many artists-of-color
working through a multitude of aesthetic and cultural practices whose works address the
intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in sophisticated ways, but without the kind of
publicity and support given to this particular production by the University and the Krannert
Center. The focus of attention should not be on Speak Theater Arts, but the ways in which
both students of color and the performing arts are marginalized on campus. Important questions
about the University’s response to the campus climate of racialized tensions and conflicts
cannot be addressed, let alone alleviated, by its support for this particular production.
Furthermore, it is the position of the Asian American Studies Program that boycotting
the Speak Theater Arts production of NWC, without having seen the production, disallows
a critical engagement with its content. Works by many theater scholars and professionals,
notably Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns and New World Theater’s former manager
Roberta Uno’s co-edited anthology The Color of Theater, theater scholar Meiling Cheng’s
In Other Los Angeleses, and David Roman’s Performance in America provide the theatrical
context in which the politics and aesthetics of Speak Theater Arts’ production of NWC
emerge. Speak Theater Arts joins the growing body of performance art by artists-of-color
whose work speaks to issues of race, ethnicity, and identity, through ironic re-appropriations
of racial stereotypes.
NWC follows a long tradition of artists using ethnic humor to subvert stereotypes and
political correctness in irreverent and controversial ways. NWC is also in dialogue with
productions companies such as Culture Clash,18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, and other
artists such as John Leguizamo and Michael Zia, whose works stage stereotypes of Latino
and Asian American masculinity in order to acknowledge and confront the pain caused
by racial stereotypes, while also proposing new ways of re-staging and empowering Latino
and Asian American bodies with agency.
The Asian American Studies Program acknowledges that these works often reproduce
problematic discourses about masculinity or liberal multiculturalism, or otherwise fail to
incorporate a critical lens with regard to gender or sexuality. These issues have been and
continue to be part of ongoing debates about cultural politics in which we seek to intervene
as scholars, artists, and activists. That said, Speak Theater Arts adds another dimension to the alternative theater scene whose works both
explore, and provide opportunities to further discuss, the
possibilities and limits of dialogue between Asian American,
Latino, and African American subjects.
As such, the Asian American Studies Program does not
encourage a boycott of the NWC performance, but instead
a concerted and collective effort to grapple with both the
campus climate of racial tensions, as well as the multifaceted
nature of contemporary cultural production by
artists-of-color. This position does not preclude either critical
responses to or criticisms of the performance or of the
context for its production at the University of Illinois.
Again, we strongly believe that the UIUC community
should regard this controversial performance as an opportunity
to discuss both the institutional politics of curatorial
decision-making, as well as the possibilities for creating
a truly progressive cultural politics.
The Last Word on the N
Word: Asim Jabari
“I dream a world,” wrote Langston Hughes. I entertain similar
visions in which the language we use helps us determine a
new and invigorating reality. I imagine a way of life derived
from our purest, wisest, fiercely loving selves. I dream of a
world where “nigger” no longer roams, confined instead to
the fetid white fantasy land where he was born.

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