Students at a Boston college wanted to stage a well-known play. They learned that censorship is alive and well.
By Harvey Silverglate and Gia Barresi
MARCH 30, 1998: How offensive, how inappropriate, is the word whorehouse? The answer, apparently, is "very" -- at least to administrators at the Wentworth Institute of Technology.
Last fall, students at Wentworth got together with students at neighboring Wheelock College to stage the play The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which had a 1576-performance run on Broadway beginning in the late 1970s. But when Wentworth administrators heard about the planned production, they shut it down on the grounds that the play's title sent what one administrator called "the wrong message." In the end, disappointed students were told that the decision was not negotiable.
The incident is a reminder that old-fashioned censorship is alive in Boston -- and thriving in the world of higher education. At Wentworth, however, officials insist it's no big deal. "We can't believe the matter has gotten this much attention," says John Heinstadt, the school's vice president of business and finance, even though the story has attracted virtually no notice outside the two campuses. The reason for the cancellation was really quite simple and innocuous, he explains: the decision was made to protect Wentworth's "positive image" as it celebrated its 25th year of accepting female students. It was a "PR matter," Heinstadt explains. In other words, the college thought its image would be best served by censoring a student play.
As far-fetched as it sounds that an institution of higher education in the supposedly cosmopolitan and enlightened Commonwealth of Massachusetts would force its student drama club to cancel a well-known play merely because of the word whorehouse in the title, Heinstadt assured the Phoenix that this was precisely the case. His candor is perhaps the best indication that in these times -- when traditional American prudishness has been combined with the more recent phenomenon of "political correctness" -- censorship is as much a threat as it has ever been.
There is little dispute about how the story unfolded. Wentworth is part of a five-college consortium that collaborates on certain projects. Last September, its drama club decided to join forces with Wheelock's on a production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The Wheelock students had chosen the play in cooperation with Teresa Goding, whom Wheelock had hired to direct the Wentworth-Wheelock fall play, and both drama clubs' executive boards had approved the selection. Casting began on September 10. After five days of auditions -- with the play cast, show dates selected, and rehearsals about to begin -- Goding learned from one of the student actors that Wentworth's administration was balking at sponsoring the production.
Jeannette Hixon, Wentworth's director of student activities and multicultural programs, then met with Goding, Wentworth Drama Club faculty adviser Les Welter, Wentworth Drama Club president Kevin Beare, and Becca Shanahan, the play's assistant director, who is a Wheelock alumna and former head of the drama club. After a vigorous discussion of the show's merits, Hixon failed to budge from the administration's position that the play's title was inappropriate. (Hixon also admonished Welter for not getting the administration's approval for the play before production began. Yet Wentworth has no written, or even informal, policy for securing such approval.)
Disheartened by the meeting with Hixon, Goding and others involved with the play scheduled a meeting with Wentworth dean of students Maureen C. Keefe. As Goding put it: "In this day, it is shocking to find out that schools of higher education cannot place enough faith in their students to produce a show that will be not only fun but educational, academically and emotionally -- just because of the title." Goding showed Keefe the script, and the group tried to explain to the dean that the play, though superficially about a brothel, also had a serious message.
Indeed, Whorehouse has a theme that might be expected to find favor with women, and especially with feminists. Its inspiration was a nonfiction account by Larry L. King (not to be confused with the television talk-show host) of the closing of the Chicken Ranch, a once-popular Texas brothel. Virtually a state institution since before the turn of the century, the Chicken Ranch was closed in the early 1970s as a result of agitation by right-wing Christians. According to James D'Entremont, director of the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression, the show "attacks hypocrisy and prudishness, and espouses sexual freedom but does not endorse prostitution as a way of life." The madam is portrayed in a more favorable light than are the local pols, decency crusaders, and other assorted hypocrites.
Yet Keefe was not moved by such arguments. She said that after consultation with certain faculty members, she had concluded that the title was a turnoff and would not be appropriate to mention in an alumni newsletter. When the group suggested that the newsletter could include an article explaining the meaning of the play and the reasons for the students' selection, Keefe remained adamant.
Henry Hansen, a Wentworth freshman who was to play the lead in Whorehouse, separately urged Keefe to reconsider. He ultimately expressed his outrage in a flyer distributed widely on campus. Hansen wrote: "I am at college for so many reasons. . . . I want to meet new people, have my freedom, and hopefully learn more about life. . . . In less than three weeks, Wentworth has [already] censored my art and expression."
The student cast and crew eventually produced Bound for Broadway, but the fallout has had a lasting effect. In addition to canceling the original play, Keefe temporarily suspended Les Welter for failing to seek administrative review of the selection. Welter, who played no part in choosing the play, has a dramatic-arts background and has served as the Wentworth administration's liaison to the drama club. When Welter was told of his suspension, he resigned as faculty adviser.
One of the ironies of the Whorehouse controversy is that the play aroused no protest at Wheelock, where women make up more than 90 percent of the student body. The Wheelock faculty adviser was a woman, the play's assistant director was a woman, and female Wheelock students made up most of the play's intended cast.
What this demonstrates, of course, is that censorship is rarely inflicted for the benefit of the people it's supposed to "protect." Censors, when they're sincere, are driven mainly by their own fears. When they're not sincere, they are driven by goals of their own -- for example, the need to prevent controversy that might disrupt fundraising. Controversy also upsets college administrators who fear trouble on their watch and will do almost anything to keep the campus quiet. When academic freedom presents a roadblock, the censors just march forward anyway. The result is a culture in which an exaggerated and patronizing fear of offending someone poses a threat to creativity -- and to traditional notions of liberty.
As Teresa Goding told Dean Keefe in a letter, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a play not only about political and religious hypocrisy, but also about "the need for people to strive for dignity in sometimes the most destitute and shameful situations." It is an important point -- but audiences at Wheelock and Wentworth will not get to hear it.
When she pleaded with Keefe to allow the production to go forward, Goding also made another observation, the significance of which Keefe obviously failed to grasp: "The [play's] authors chose to make the show into a mockery in order for people to understand the ignorance of . . . passing judgment without gathering all of the facts."
Harvey Silverglate, a frequent Phoenix contributor, is coauthor of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, which will be published by the Free Press in October. Gia Barresi is a senior paralegal at the law firm of Silverglate & Good.
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