Editor's note: A response from the University of Wyoming Department of Theatre and Dance ran in Sunday's Laramie Boomerang. It can also be read for free here.
Native American high school students — attending a weeklong summer institute at the University of Wyoming that aims to give them a first taste of college — walked out of the Department of Theater and Dance’s production of “The Fantasticks” on Thursday during intermission after taking offense at the play’s content.
The production — first performed in 1960 — contains a scene in which characters dress up as and villainize Native Americans. Attendees said they were also shocked at the casual use of the word “rape” in the play’s dialogue.
The walkout prompted a response from UW’s United Multicultural Council, hasty scene edits before the next performance and a boycott of the play by another summer camp. Upward Bound — a summer camp aimed at recruiting low income and first generation students to UW — will no longer be attending the Saturday performance its participants were previously scheduled to attend.
“Our program has students from diverse backgrounds and cultures and we decided it would be inappropriate to attend the play,” said Trevor Montgomery, a dorm director for Upward Bound. “We didn’t want to dismiss the offensiveness of outdated stereotypes by taking our kids to see this performance.”
UMC Co-Chair Tyler Wolfgang was in attendance and said the play contained rape jokes in addition to inappropriate comments about Native Americans.
The UMC’s statement, authored by Wolfgang, condemns the production for projecting cultural stereotypes of both Native American and Latinos/Hispanics.
“The show especially demeans Native American cultures with outdated stereotypes of Native American appropriation by non-native actors wearing headdresses/warbonnets,” the statement reads. “It also portrays Native American and Latino/Hispanic characters as the villains or antagonists of the show.”
UW President Laurie Nichols and her husband, Tim, were also in attendance. Although he is not employed by UW, Tim Nichols was instrumental in setting up the Native American Summer Institute.
He said that the derogatory content of the production hurt — but did not undo — the progress the institute has made toward welcoming Native American students from the Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere in the state.
“It’s a 1960s play, but it was, in my view, inappropriate,” he said. “ … (But) we shared our concerns with the theater department and we shared our concerns with the students and, you know, we’re OK. We’re going to have a good week. … We’re going to finish strong here and not let that drag it down.”
Despite wide condemnation of the production’s content, Nichols, Wolfgang and students said they did not want to throw the actors under the bus.
“We have been reached out to by some of the actors in the show who are currently reworking moments from last night(’s) opening for the remainder of the run,” the UMC statement says. “We support this decision …”
The content, while inexcusable, was simply unfortunate, Tim Nichols said.
“I think there’s a broader issue about racism in Laramie that is very much worthy of in-depth examination,” he said.
An insert for the production’s program, explaining the context of — and warning audiences about — the scene was put together Friday by the Department of Theater and Dance.
“With historical productions, we see a ‘point in time,’ which is different from the one in which we live,” the insert reads. “We see portrayals of characters that are painful to watch as 21st century audiences. The challenge then, in producing historical works, is to help audiences understand the context and/or story for the play without taking undue or illegal liberties with the script.”
The insert expresses the department’s wish to start and contribute in a dialogue about the production’s content.
“The Department of Theatre and Dance is committed to presenting high-quality, meaningful, and sometimes challenging material,” it says. “But it is never our intention to offend.”