NWC performing to a sold-out crowd at CSULB last year. Photo courtesy of Rafael Augustín.
It packs a quite the punch with its controversial title, but N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk (NWC) has made an indelible mark on the university landscape, playing to more than 150 venues in over 40 states, according to its creators and performers.
In fact, the show, a no-holds-barred autobiographical account of racism and an exploration of the impact of such derogatory terms, played just last year to a sold-out crowd at Cal State Long Beach’s (CSULB) Carpenter Center.
Yet this year, as race relations have intensified and since the show’s scheduling last March, the university informed Executive Director Michele Roberge the show had been pulled from the lineup, to her surprise and disappointment.
She put in her notice of resignation almost immediately. Her last day, after 14 years at the helm, is Friday.
“I [didn’t want] to show up every day knowing I was working for a university that condoned censorship,” said Roberge. “[…]It took me 15 seconds to make up my mind.”
The show’s performers called the university’s decision “disappointing.”
“While we acknowledge the undeniably challenging nature of the show title, there is a long history of broad support for this project dating back to its origin as a student show at UCLA,” said creator Rafael Agustín in a statement. “Our travels nationally include performances at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity and over 150 venues in more than 40 states. It has long been the position of our company that there is a vast difference between using these words to express hatred and having a mature conversation about their use. We encourage important dialogue within diverse communities like Long Beach, and believe that the artists of our show deserved an opportunity to share stories borne from the real-life experiences of its authors.”
CSULB Spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said the opposition to the performance was internal, among “campus stakeholders and members of the campus community.”
“The president and the performers have the same goal to create dialogue surrounding race and race relations,” said Uhlenkamp. “Members voiced their concerns […]We felt the performance wasn’t achieving that goal.”
When asked about the type of measures used that could indicate whether the performance was achieving its intended goal in providing a constructive dialogue around race and race relations, Uhlenkamp declined to comment. He said only that the university was moving forward in creating the president’s Inclusive Excellence Commission, in which university community members will be appointed to discuss said issues surrounding race.
Starring Agustín, Jackson McQueen and Dionysio Basco, N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk blends theater, stand up comedy, poetry and hip-hop. According to a release issued last year, while attending UCLA, Agustín began to explore writing his own play after facing repeated rejection for leading roles in plays written by William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
Agustín was an undocumented immigrant at the time, and reached out to two college friends, one African-American and the other Asian-American. The three set out to confront racist stereotypes they had experienced, and to do so through humor.
“As artists, we believe that these derogatory terms continue to resonate in the public sphere and are therefore exactly the kind of thing that should be considered in the arts,” Agustín said in a statement last year.
The first performance of N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk at UCLA led to picketing. Those picketers later joined the ticket line when they learned it was an anti-racist performance, according to Sharon Waxman in the New York Times.
It’s not the first time the university has been accused of censorship as it pertains to dramatic performances. In 2010, according to the CSULB newspaper the Daily 49er, theatre arts majors protested CSULB’s refusal to advertise a play on the Seventh Street marquee because the its title contains the word “tribades”—apparently a word too close for comfort among university staff and faculty to the sex act of “tribading,” also known as “scissoring.” The play, The Night of Tribades, was about playwright August Strindberg’s relationship with women.
The play was performed on The Queen Mary later that month.
The cancellation also stands in contrast to the “Creative Campus” campaign the university conducted from 2011 to 2012, which “presented performances and other activities to stimulate wide-ranging discussions that examine what happens when a voice ‘whether in artistic endeavors, journalism, scientific research or other areas’ is stifled through governmental, commercial, or social restraints.”
Roberge said she first received a phone call from the CSULB School of Art, which oversees the Carpenter Center, regarding concerns surrounding the performance last May. The local chapter of the NAACP had expressed opposition to the title of the performance, which included the “N-word,” she said. At the time, “President Conoley wrote a very articulate and well-thought-out letter” to the organization, said Roberge. “She said that an educational institution was exactly the right setting for inquiry of that kind. She was very supportive of us doing the show last year.”
However, the president hesitated moving forward after members of the university community spoke up regarding the use of the word on campus. Roberge suggested delaying the performance until next March, allowing for proactive educational outreach to occur before the performance, but the university ultimately ruled against it.
She received the phone call regarding the final decision last week.
“All I was told is that this is not a good time and people don’t want the show on campus,” said Roberge.
Roberge said last year’s performance resulted in an “overwhelmingly positive” reaction from the community—an opinion directly conflicting with that of the university.
“My job is to protect artists so that they can be seen,” said Roberge. “To me, art helps people deal with issues. Controversial art helps people deal with controversial issues.[…] I think a lot of universities are afraid [in today’s climate]. To me, when you’re afraid, you run at it, not from it.”
Roberge said her opinions on controversial art were why she appreciated NWC’s show so much, because they were “running at it.”
“They told me there was one event when both the NAACP and NRA came out against the show,” said Roberge. “They offended both liberal and conservative audiences.”
See below for the NWC statement in its entirety:
We’re deeply disappointed in the recent turn of events associated with the planned presentation of our show, N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK, at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach.
While we acknowledge the undeniably challenging nature of the show title, there is a long history of broad support for this project dating back to its origin as a student show at UCLA. Our travels nationally include performances at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity and over 150 venues in more than 40 states. It has long been the position of our company that there is a vast difference between using these words to express hatred and having a mature conversation about their use. We encourage important dialogue within diverse communities like Long Beach, and believe that the artists of our show deserved an opportunity to share stories borne from the real-life experiences of its authors.
We know that giving a platform to strong voices is what drove Executive Director Michelle Roberge to book us for a return engagement at the Carpenter Center, and were devastated to hear of her decision to leave the position following our show cancellation. She has been staggeringly professional, thoughtful, and tenacious in her support of our show and company and we are so grateful to her.
Please let it be known that we believe deeply 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.
We intend to keep the conversation going even though the Carpenter Center stage will remain empty on September 29th.
Co-Founder, Speak Theater Arts