Campus Free Speech

Bristol University Theater Group Accused of Cultural Appropriation, Forced to Cancel Play

'Of course we would not want to cause offence in any way.'


Screenshot via Warner Classic TV / Youtube

It happened again: a college theater group had no choice but to cancel its production of Aida—a musical about an Ethiopian princess held prisoner in ancient Egypt.

The group had cast mostly white actors to play characters who are African and Egyptian, which led to accusations of cultural appropriation and white-washing.

"It's quite simple, really: if you are going to put on a production set in a particular place with a particular cultural context, then you need to reflect that with the ethnicity of actors," one student had complained, according to The Tab.

Of course all productions are set in particular places with particular cultural contexts. Romeo and Juliet unfolds in medieval Italy, but I can't recall anybody insisting that the cast be of Italian descent.

That's because the actors are expected to, well, act. Stepping into characters who are utterly unlike the people playing them is the whole point. If actors were always just playing themselves, it wouldn't be challenging or fulfilling.

This idea that human beings should be confined to forms of artistic expression that comport with their ethnic makeup and ancestral culture ought to be stridently resisted by modern society, as author Lionel Shriver argued in a recent speech:

The ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn't belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt. All that's left is memoir.

In any case, Music Theatre Bristol has cancelled the performance. "Of course we would not want to cause offence in any way, and that was certainly never our intention," the group write on Facebook.

But offense is a two-way street: I'm offended that they're not showing the play. And I suspect I'm not alone. There are probably some students—perhaps even students of African and Egyptian descent—who were looking forward to having one of their stories told on stage.

What a perfect reminder that the endgame of the cultural appropriation warriors is a world with less diversity.