Point Park cancels ‘The Adding Machine: The Musical’ after student objections to offensive content

Citing student objections to offensive content, Point Park University canceled its production of The Adding Machine: The Musical, which was scheduled to run Dec 6-15.

The PPU Globe reports that during an emotional “town hall” meeting that included the cast and crew and more than enough members of the public to fill the Highmark Theater, COPA dean Stephen Breese said, “I have heard you, and I have seen things that I never could’ve imagined from this dialogue. I do not see a way that this production can go forward.”

The Globe reports the play includes “lines and songs containing racial slurs as well as misogynistic ideas,” and quotes director Tlaloc Rivas as saying, “This play was written during the Bush years and was a statement against the mindlessness of America entering into a senseless war.”

The article doesn’t mention the 2007 musical is an adaptation of a 1923 play, or that the author, Elmer Rice (born Elmer Reizenstein) was known in the 1930s as an anti-capitalist, pro-labor activist who was deeply critical of the prejudices and biases of his time period. His work regularly dramatized social flaws — creating characters who say and do offensive things, in order that other characters can react to them within the context of the story.

One chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation focuses on The Adding Machine as a ground-breaking example of American theatrical expressionism, creatively using sound effects, bold sets, and the spoken word at a time when Broadway was losing audiences to early silent movies.

I have not seen the musical adaptation, but in the stage play a scene features an ensemble of couples with names like “One” and “Mrs. One,” “Two” and “Mrs. Two” who wear clothes that are identical except for the color, who form up in circles and speak ritualistically and in numerical order, and end up chanting a stream of xenophobic and discriminatory statements and ironically standing in unison to sing “My country ’tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty.”

In musicals, the ensemble typically represents the society that the protagonist rejects. Think of the boring townspeople singing about how odd Belle is in Beauty and the Beast, or “Under the Sea” vs. “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid.

According to the stage directions, Mr. Zero, the protagonist of the play, does not participate in the mass chanting of hateful slogans, but he does make racist comments in some of his speeches. I see those statements as signs that Zero doesn’t realize how much society has damaged him. The story requires him to be stupid and dull, and while we can see him as a victim of a horrible society, the play is structured so that he’s deeply criticized, and even condemned in the afterlife, for having no ambitions other than to be a cog in this societal machine. A supernatural character mocks him mercilessly for not having the courage to rebel.

In the professional world, actors who don’t like the message of a particular play can choose not to audition for it, and actors who would feel uncomfortable saying certain lines or performing certain action stage can decline a role.

However…

According to the COPA handbook, students in the conservatory who are on scholarship must not only audition for every production, but must accept all roles that they are assigned, or else they could be removed from the program. Students requested the removal of this requirement.

[…] 

“I did not sign up for this,” Kahlil Cabble, a sophomore musical theater major and cast member, said. “I did not sign up to have my anxiety on display. It’s not okay that up until this point, I have had to numb myself to all of this.”

I have taught The Adding Machine several times, and I do spend time contextualizing the offensive material. Because Mr. Zero is far from blameless, this is a complex play to teach.

The Adding Machine is exactly the kind of text that’s worth discussing in a college context, because it brings up uncomfortable ideas that are worth discussing. I was really looking forward to attending the Point Park production.

There are plays I would choose not to attend, plays I would choose not to teach, and certainly roles I would never want to perform. A well-prepared actor will be familiar with the play beforehand, so as to avoid being caught by surprise when handed lines to read during the audition.

Having said that, I hope Point Park rethinks its policy about forcing students to audition for every play, and forcing them to accept any part.

I have on occasion given students alternate assignments when texts I’ve assigned have struck too close to home.