Theatre department apologizes after recent play Machinal criticized by students for its portrayal of oppression

The department of theatre and film has apologized to students after concerns that its recent play aimed to “unite minority struggle” without acknowledging the oppression faced by Black people.

Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell and directed by masters of fine arts student Laura Di Cicco, is a play about a woman in the 1920s who marries her boss and ends up killing him, after being “driven by her desperation for freedom,” according to the department’s description of the show. It ran from November 25 to December 4 at the Frederic Wood Theatre.

In an email sent on Friday, December 10, department head Stephen Heatley apologized to students.

“…I know that elements of our production of Machinal, in particular the final episode, hurt and offended people. I am sorry about this. There are important lessons for us to learn through this experience,” he wrote.

Mikaela Joy Kawaley-Lathan, a fifth-year and student representative of Fine Arts for Black, Indigenous and people of colour (FABIPOC), a group centred on addressing issues of racism within the fine arts departments, expressed concern about the use of “hurt and offended” in Heatley’s statement.

“Although I appreciate the attempt to address the emotional impact, for me as a Black audience member, I didn’t feel hurt or offended — it wasn’t an emotionally driven reaction, but a critical, logical and cognitive one. I was disappointed and I was concerned, but not hurt,” she said.

‘Unnecessary parallels’

The issues with the play centred around its portrayal of oppression.

Projections of Black Lives Matter protests and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared in the production, something Kawaley-Lathan said “drew unnecessary parallels between the oppression of women in the 1920s and Black people.”

“By aiming to ‘unite minority struggle’ without thoroughly portraying the oppression faced by Black people, it erased and minimized the complexities and differences between the two,” she said.

Kawaley-Lathan also said that in the last scene of the show, the protagonist was played by a man.

“Although an interesting choice, having not consulted any members of the LGBTQ community or having any other mention of cross dressing or trans rights issues, it felt that the depth of this decision was brushed over and didn’t serve the community it attempted to represent,” she said.

On December 8, FABIPOC posted several photos on Instagram with the words “STOP USING BLACK PEOPLE AND BLACK TRAUMA AS A PROP” on the main image. The post tagged the theatre department.

In her director’s note on the department’s website, Di Cicco wrote that there were “several references in this play that speak to the language and attitudes of that particular time period,” references that “would not be considered appropriate” today. She thanked her “cultural consultant … for his assistance in working with myself and our cast to determine the most suitable way to mount this production.”

Kawaley-Lathan said it may have been more fruitful to have a Black woman consultant for this play — given that it centred around female oppression.

Working to address concerns

In a statement to The Ubyssey on December 16, Heatley said the department is working closely with the community to address the concerns about the production.

“I would like to emphasize that we are committed to creating a safe, respectful and inclusive space for all students, faculty and staff, including BIPOC community members,” Heatley wrote.

In his statement, Heatley noted that this version of Machinal “explored themes of social location (such as gender, race, class, age, and ability) and privilege during the 20th century, and the lessons we can collectively learn from this time period when considered through the lenses of contemporary social justice movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter.”

Heatley said they took “proactive steps to mitigate potentially harmful impacts while also working to balance these considerations with academic and artistic freedoms” when working on this production. He specifically noted that they sought the advice of an external equity, diversity and inclusion consultant and included a director’s note disclosing the content of the play.

Last summer, FABIPOC wrote a letter to Heatley, asking him to address racism and harassment in the department.

Since then, Kawaley-Lathan said FABIPOC meets with the department “periodically.” She said she’s “confident” the department is addressing the issues they have brought up and is working to change the department for the better.

Kawaley-Lathan additionally said she believes Heatley recognizes there are aspects of “intersectionality and minoritarian struggles" that he doesn’t know.

“The willingness to own this lack of knowledge, apologize and be willing to listen, learn and grow is promising,” she said.

In his statement, Heatley wrote that they are “actively taking steps as a department toward supporting UBC’s institutional efforts to build a more inclusive campus.”

Those steps include a “community conversation” in January, using the UBC Equity and Inclusion Office’s Inclusivity Self-Assessment Tool in equity, diversity and inclusion work, engaging with BIPOC advisors and attending a decolonizing workshop.

In addition, Healtley noted a new casting process that “pays close attention to student safety and representation, considering any potential concerns actors may have with their role and possible accommodations or adjustments that can be made.”

Kawaley-Lathan said FABIPOC is looking forward to the conversation in January, as well as how the department restructures its “play selection process to promote inclusivity.”

“We’ve been discussing this for the past year, and feel this is a critical time to learn more about the delicate way minority representation should be navigated.”