Provocative play pulled due to national tragedy

So much for daring experiments. It’s back to the drawing board for Chico State University’s annual spring musical, thanks to the terrorist attacks last week.

This was the year that the university was going to take a risk with the musical, traditionally its most popular theater event, and offer something different, something challenging and utterly original. This was the year for Assassins.

Bad timing. After much deliberation, the play has been yanked.

Assassins is a modern black comedy/musical written by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. It traces the stories of infamous figures who killed or attempted to kill American presidents through history. Originally presented off Broadway, Assassins spent most of the last decade being performed in regional theaters, though it was coincidentally scheduled to make its Broadway premiere this fall.

Nix that production too. In a released statement, Sondheim and Weidman said that the “show asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience. … [We] believe this is not an appropriate time to present a show that makes such a demand.”

Locally, concerns arose immediately following the attacks about the appropriateness of staging a violent musical. Both faculty and cast members, who had been rehearsing the play for two weeks, began, as department Chairman Bill Johnson writes in a memo, a series of “honest, intelligent and open-hearted deliberations” that allowed everyone to plead their case for or against the production.

Two arguments were equally defensible, Johnson explains. Some believed strongly that undertaking a controversial work of art was indeed appropriate, especially in troubling times. Others believed there was simply “not enough aesthetic distance from the subject matter (given the events of the tragedy) for the required communal empathy and participation in the dramatic event.”

“I was first and foremost concerned with the cast,” said director Joel Rogers, one of the original proponents of bringing the work to Chico. “It was a tough place to be in. All of us were divided between wanting to perform a powerful work and feeling a humanistic obligation. But I don’t know if anything we could say would be as powerful as the events of Tuesday.”

Need it be? When asked whether preconceived notions of audience response should influence whether art is presented, Rogers said that question was among the many issues grappled with during the meetings. Other topics included the welfare of student actors being asked to deliver lines that might conceivably anger a sensitive public.

Fine Arts Interim Dean Sara Blackstone admitted the decision—which the Theater Department has been careful not to characterize as a consensus—was a “difficult and painful one,” but that she was also very proud of the process, calling it “the very best kind of discussion that an academic environment allows.

“I think the decision reflects a careful consideration of what is right for our students and the community,” Blackstone said. “Although artists often make the conscious choice to shock … we feel that the message here would be poking an open wound for no good reason. Being painful doesn’t ultimately present a message.”

Johnson further adds that Sondheim’s own decision to cancel had nothing to do with the decision to postpone the show, and that it would be wrong to characterize the Chico cancellation as “censorship” of any kind.

“I told folks early on that despite my personal feeling that we should go forward,” notes Johnson, “we would have to do so with unanimous conviction to be artistically successful. That wholeness of purpose was not there. … [We] still love and are committed to the play, and it is perhaps because many of us understand the medium and the message so well that we realized the current environment was wrong.”

Johnson points to the final scene of the work, one of direct confrontation in which all the cast members, from “Squeaky” Fromme to John Hinckley, stand and face the audience, pointing their guns at the crowd and firing loud blanks.

“Part of the message of the play is a wake-up call that there are people out there who are marginalized, disturbed, who don’t like us and want to hurt us,” Johnson said. “That wake-up got delivered pretty effectively on Tuesday.”

In a related story, in Paradise a Theater on the Ridge production of Fragile Fox, a tense World War II drama, has been postponed indefinitely because of war themes deemed unsuitable in the current climate.