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Closing the curtains on censorship

By Winston Chu and Caitlynn Sue Dec. 14, 2023

The day before its opening night at Santa Monica College (SMC), students voted to cancel the play “By the River Rivanna” due to controversy over its problematic themes. Written by SMC’s playwright-in-residence G. Bruce Smith, “By the River Rivanna” details the experiences of a Black man who struggles to understand his family history.

The play was historically inaccurate and romanticized slavery, portraying a slave owner who believes slavery is evil but never combats it, and a slave who defends his enslaver and sacrifices his freedom for their romance. The SMC Pan-African Association, a leading voice in the opposition, stated that the play “embraces a romantic version of the tragic legacy of slavery.”

Students also voiced their complaints about the play being written by a white man and directed by an Asian woman despite covering the Black experience. One student even wrote to the administrators claiming the play “wasn’t their story to tell,” as reported by the LA Times. However, only allowing authors of a certain group to tell stories of that group suppresses meaningful discussions and restricts literature’s diversity. Exploring stories outside of one’s experiences can be pivotal in building empathy if done correctly. It is only when authors fail to do careful research and review their work with individuals of the group in question who understand the history and complexities of that community that issues of misrepresentation and insensitivity arise.

Jude Tantaway Art

After initial criticisms, Smith made multiple script revisions to censor uses of the n-word and certain problematic moments, such as a scene where an enslaved woman says she allowed herself to be raped. However, the day before the play’s opening night, administrators demanded students hold a vote on whether their play should be canceled. Although eight of the 12 students voted to continue, the play could not run without a consensus, so it was ultimately canceled.

The cancellation of the play caused further controversy as some saw it as a violation of academic freedom. Per the First Amendment, public institutions should not meddle with students’ expressive rights. Instead of suppressing voices, institutions should work with producers and students during the process to ensure historical accuracy and promote a more inclusive and respectful portrayal of diverse narratives.

“​​We should not censor plays because there could be lessons to be learned. This semester we did not censor anything in ‘The Laramie Project’ except for the F-slur since it shows the ugly truth about hate crimes,” Sophomore and drama student Varna Mouli said.

Although he made the effort to get the play reviewed by a Black playwright, Smith’s efforts to conduct research for “By the River Rivanna” were lackluster, gathering information online from Reddit discussion boards and movies. If Smith had consulted Black history experts while writing the play, he could have instead created a play that encouraged valuable discussions about the legacy of slavery in America.

“Plays about certain minority groups should be only told by people of that group so their stories are not distorted,” Senior Vrushti Dave said.

While some plays are unjustly censored, “By the River Rivanna” spreads historically inaccurate ideas that downplay the true experiences of slaves. As an educational institution, SMC had to prevent the spread of misinformation, justifying the cancellation. Thus, it is crucial that schools do not restrict’ students’ creative rights, but step in if inaccurate information arises.


About the contributors

Caitlynn Sue

staff writer

Caitlynn Sue is a sophmore at Leland High school and an artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she enjoys drawing, playing violin, and dancing.

Winston Chu

staff writer

Winston Chu is a sophomore at Leland High. He enjoys writing, debating, and sleeping.

Jude Tantaway


Jude Tantawy is a senior at Leland High School and is an artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she enjoys drawing & painting, cooking, baking, playing video games, and is always listening to music.

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