Controversial Play Tears the School Apart–College Memoirs: Life at Roanoke–March 1994, Part 2

Now for the defining event which essentially ruined what InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) fought so hard to set up at Roanoke:

You don’t have to agree with the people who were against the school play, but I do want you to understand that nobody was trying to stifle women’s voices or fight against women’s empowerment.

Nor was it IVCF trying to censor people, which is how it was misrepresented to the student body.  This is what really happened:

In March, there was a huge controversy over the school play that was to be put on that semester.

Lucky Spot” had already caused controversy fall semester because it had nonstop cussing and was shown on Family Night without a warning; the language really should have been toned down out of sensitivity to the audience and any Christian actors.

The language added nothing; the play would have been perfectly understandable without it.  It didn’t seem right to make actors use language which may have been against their personal Christian beliefs.  It was, however, a good and funny play.

This next play, “Uncommon Women” by Wendy Wasserstein, caused controversy because of the often vulgar subject matter.  Many people considered it inappropriate at a Christian college.

The year before, my World Lit class had said that we could be pretty sure the old guys who ran Roanoke would never agree to showing the old Greek play, “Lysistrata.”  But “Lysistrata” was tame compared to this play.

Some of the controversial scenes: A girl runs in and says, “I did it!  I’ve tasted my menstrual blood!”  (I have a low tolerance for gore.)  There was also a scene in which a girl shows a virgin the different penis sizes.  I don’t remember more concrete examples from the play, so you’d have to find a copy or video of it.

In Googling this play just now, I discovered that this play was shown on TV back in the 70s, to critical acclaim.  I had never heard of this play, however, and I doubt that many people at Roanoke had, other than the older generations, such as the theater director.

(No doubt my parents did not want me, a 5-year-old, to see it.  As Nazarenes, they probably did not want to watch it themselves.)

A critic from the New York Times called the sex talk funny and believable, though it becomes excessive.  But to me, it wasn’t at all believable, and was all excessive.

As Phil explained it to me, a former member of our IVCF group, Dori, also a theater major, got a copy of the script (hoping to try out), but was irate.

She wrote letters to the churches that supported the college financially, quoted the vulgar parts of the play, said it had no business being performed on a Christian campus, and that IVCF was behind her in this.

But I don’t know why she wrote this about IVCF.  She was on the outs with our club president Pearl, she had not been in IVCF for a while, and IVCF had never even heard of this play.  

The rest of the school, however, got wind of this by March and believed a rumor–namely, that IVCF was against the play.

The members of IVCF had never read the play, and had no official stand on the play, not then or, as far as I remember, ever.  But they were seen as censors.

The Mirror staff showed a grave error in judgment by making a certain Kelly, the most vocal and adamant supporter of the play and foe to IVCF, the main writer of articles about the controversy.  

Rather than do actual, professional, journalistic research, he wrote rumors and opinions and inaccuracies as facts, and fueled the fire against IVCF.  Basically, he was our own Rita Skeeter.

IVCF was ridiculed and verbally abused.

Many of the people, organizations and churches who funded Roanoke threatened to withhold their money because of the play.

I have since learned that Tracy was involved in this play (to my surprise because I believe she was a Christian), and that the actresses made T-shirts which said, “Who’s afraid of Wendy Wasserstein?”  Which really made no sense; nobody was “afraid” of Wendy Wasserstein.  We didn’t even know who she was.

I had no individual stance until after the Play was shown.  I wanted to see it for myself before making up my mind.

I went around listening to people’s various sides of it: I had long talks with Phil about it, since he had the one male part in the play: an announcer offstage.

He said this year’s theme was plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning women, but this play had not won the Pulitzer.

(After just now checking out the plot of the Pulitzer winner, The Heidi Chronicles, I bet it would have been far better received at Roanoke than Uncommon Women.)

We also talked with others about it, such as Julie.  She and Darryl were to change their position after converting to Catholicism a few years later, and feel mortified that they took the stance they did.  But at the time they felt that Roanoke was a liberal arts school, and showing the play was part of being liberal arts.

Kelly apparently didn’t know that I was in IVCF, which he mistakenly thought Dori still belonged to (an example of his lack of research before writing articles).

When Phil and I somehow ended up talking with him about the play after lunch or dinner one day and the cafeteria was nearly empty, he railed in a loud voice against Dori.  He was graphic, crass and embarrassingly loud.

He said he bet she had done things to herself that were like things spoken of in the play, and then moved his hand down to his crotch and started yelling out female cries of orgasmic pleasure.

Phil and I said nothing at the time, but both agreed that what Kelly said and did was far over the line of decency.

Others, such as Astrid and Pearl, thought that a Christian school should not be showing plays with vulgar content.  If this were a secular college, they would have let it go.

Different people in IVCF had different opinions.  Some thought it should be banned; some thought it should be shown; some didn’t know what to think and preferred to stay out of it (that would be me and probably my roommate).

The rumor mill made us sound like a powerhorse, but IVCF was merely a handful of hardworking friends with no real influence in anything, who just wanted to get a group going for Christians to come together and hang out and have Bible studies.  

The majority of people against showing the play did not attend IVCF meetings at all, or rarely attended.  Some of us, regardless of our individual stances, were disgusted at how our little group of IVCF had been dragged into this.

Pepper Steak Derek had started doing a campus talk show in Bossard called “No Holds Barred.”  One night, the topic was the play.

On the panel were four people who he said represented InterVarsity–not representing the people against the play, but IV, though it had no stance: It was just a group.  They were Pearl, Mike, a guy who I don’t think came to IV that often, and Dori–who wasn’t even in IV.

I didn’t go to it for some reason, but Pearl later told me that it was like being in Hell itself.  There was yelling and jeers (people against IV), and people accusing IV of things it wasn’t even doing.  

Pearl and others tried to explain their positions, and I believe they got rudely shouted down.  Once a girl stood up and started rambling on about it, and her thoughts were disjointed and made no sense so the unnamed guy on the panel said, “Excuse me, but what is your point?”

The rumor mill had made IV sound like Bible-thumping censors and jerks, but that was nowhere near the truth.  IV, in fact, never did have an official position on the play.  Kelly, of course, also wrote a biased article about “No Holds Barred.”

Pearl, Mike and Rachel all wrote excellent letters to the editor.

Pearl thought the college should decide if it was Christian or secular, and on that base its decision whether to show the play.

Mike thought that people in the local towns were sheltered; nowadays, after forgetting all about the play, he says he’d be interested in seeing it.

Rachel, who was not in IVCF and was certainly no prude, thought the play should not be shown.  She tells me now that the play embarrassed her, that women can be crass and vulgar, but portraying them that way shows their foolishness, not their strengths.  It doesn’t do women justice.

Somebody, I don’t know who, started a petition to ban the play.  I don’t believe the petition had anything to do with IV.  If anything, it was just one or two people who wanted to do it.  I don’t believe I signed it, either, if I ever actually saw it.

Since Phil was the voiceover, I got to see parts of the script beforehand.  Some made me laugh, so I thought maybe the play would be fine.  The date I went to see the Play: probably April 22.  I don’t know what I did with the program.  I may have tossed it.

I felt the acting was often exaggerated, done to shock and to play to the supporters, done to emphasize the controversial bits, rather than to amuse.

During the intermission, I went out into the foyer to go to the bathroom, and Phil soon found me.  He took me into the entryway, which was separated from the foyer by glass doors, and asked me what I thought of the Play.  I said it was just awful.  Then and/or after the play was over, I said I hated it.  I didn’t care who heard me.

From what I could see, with everything in context now, the Play had no plot or point, and just took whatever chance it could find to be as gross, offensive, or vulgar as possible.  It glorified promiscuity.  And why on earth would anybody want to taste her menstrual blood?

I didn’t consider myself prudish–after all, I liked Lysistrata, The Monk, the Black Adder series and Are You Being Served, and had been addicted to Tales of the City and Melrose Place.  But there was a line I did not like to cross, a line which went past “provocative” or “naughty” and on to “obscene.”  As far as I was concerned, Uncommon Women was on the “obscene” side.

It was like it had been written by a teenager who wanted to shock their elders, or a shock jock, or one of those shock comics we had in those days.  Such things may make adolescents giggle, but they’re not true, lasting art.

Maybe it was making some kind of point about society’s views of women, but that was in the 1970s when the Sexual Revolution was a new thing.  In 1994, it wasn’t at all unusual to hear teenage women talking about sex, or for Christians to be mocked for believing in God and for abstaining from sex, drugs and alcohol.  All through my childhood and teen years, I had been mocked for my beliefs.  I came to a Christian college to find a safe haven for four years where I could hopefully find a husband among a huge pool of men with the same values I held–but instead I found almost none who shared them.  The ones who did, weren’t interested in me for some reason I never could understand.  The guys I did date, kept pushing me to compromise my beliefs.  And now here was this play telling me that my beliefs were wrong, that chastity was weird, as if I hadn’t already heard enough of that every day.

Everybody gave the play a standing ovation, but I thought it was the worst play I’d ever seen.  I later wondered if it would be better to read it, because the acting itself was so terrible, with little attention paid to things like emoting and sounding natural, sacrificing quality to say shocking lines as loudly and mockingly as possible.  This wasn’t artistic–It was nothing but a big F**K YOU.

It was possible that the play would have been much better in the hands of skilled actresses with comedic timing.  I had seen much better acting on that very stage, even from the very same actresses.  For example, if you want to see shocking, controversial subject matter done well with excellent comedic timing, I recommend watching the show Titus from around the turn of the century.

I figured the standing ovation could only have been for putting on the play in the first place despite opposition, and not for artistic value.  I stayed in my seat and only made a couple quiet, cursory claps–even quieter than my soft, shy claps usually are.

This may have been when I decided that the play did not belong on a Christian campus, though I didn’t support Dori’s actions, either.  (It was too late to join one side or the other, however, now that the play had been performed.)

Reading works in Lit class was one thing, often necessary to get a full grounding in Lit education; performing them was another, because it essentially endorsed whatever work was performed.

None of the campus plays I’d seen before this were specifically Christian, especially Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  But here was a Christian college putting on a play that openly mocked people who wanted to save themselves for marriage and resist looking at others as sex objects.

IVCF did go to the Play, an effort to show that we were trying to be fair and had been given a bad rap, and held a discussion on it after opening night.  However, no one even came to the discussion, which surprised us.

(I don’t believe I saw the Play on the opening night but on the second, though my day planner suggests I did.  I think my not going to the Play that night was the reason I didn’t go to the discussion.)

The lack of anyone at the discussion was a slap in the face, especially considering that lots of people on campus thought the play should not be shown.  Gary’s Christian girlfriend, Diana, not a part of IVCF, had the part of the virgin, and was the only character I liked.  I wondered why she wanted to be involved with such a play.

The memory of this Play was still fresh in our minds when senior year began, and the strange hostility to our group didn’t seem to dissipate much.

Once during a prayer (when once again we prayed at each of the buildings around campus), two girls walked by and began singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of their lungs.  (We countered such rudeness with humor, which you can read about when I discuss this in the senior year chapters.)

I was so furious with the rumors and what they did to our hard work that, years later, I still burn to tell people what really happened.  [This part was written and posted online in 2007.]

Years later, I discovered that the play director’s wife misrepresented the opposing point of view in the Summer 2007 issue of the alumni magazine, in an article about her husband, who had retired:

Tracy and the rest of the cast of ‘Uncommon Women,’ remember the controversy about the play?  You suffered as a group because at the time the college didn’t know anything about women’s studies.

I’m still proud of you for responding by wearing those ‘Who’s Afraid of Wendy Wasserstein?’ shirts.  Thanks for supporting [the director] and the idea of empowering women’s voices.

This just re-opened the wound I thought had closed, by making it sound like the people against the play–some of whom were my close friends, and women writers–were ignorant anti-feminists who didn’t want women to have a voice.

First they were accused of censorship; now they are accused of stifling women’s voices?  Come on, now!

This had nothing to do with woman’s “struggle against patriarchal society” or “empowering” women.  This had nothing to do with knowing nothing about “women’s studies.”  (Heck, we’d read Toni Morrison and other women authors in Lit classes.)

Many of the people against the play were women writers, even feminists.

This had everything to do with a Christian college putting on and endorsing a play which glorified promiscuity and made it impossible for many Christians to even try out for it.  For Rachel, it was about women being depicted as foolish.

This was about people refusing to listen to both sides of an argument, instead shouting the other side down and allowing slander to run rampant, and then mocking the opposition after you have effectively silenced them.

How is it “empowering” women to talk about penis sizes and tasting menstrual blood?  Women are struggling with much more important issues than finding a good lay.  We have everything from unequal power structures to abuse and murder to contend with.

How about being “empowered” in positive ways through good, unselfish, equal marriages, children raised to respect others, equal pay for equal work, equal respect, women (and men) choosing to work or stay at home as they wish, women dressing how they like instead of how others tell them to?  How about being empowered by fighting for a society that rejects sexism and rape?

Do we really need vulgarity to accomplish this?

The victors really do write the history books, so we have to be careful.  And journalists do not always tell the whole story, whether through deliberate yellow journalism or through getting facts wrong or through getting their stories chopped up.

And this does real damage to lives and to groups.  Not only did the effects of this slander and libel follow us through the rest of the year, but they continued to follow us through senior year, as I will show.

As far as I know, IVCF lasted only a little while after our last founding member (Astrid) graduated several years later.  And all this fuss was over what–something noble?  No, it was over a play about tasting menstrual blood.  I still hear about “Hair,” but I never hear about this play.

One heartening thing is discovering that, in 2007, the college now has four specifically Christian organizations, where once it had none.  Once IVCF was the only one, and it struggled to survive; now there are others in its place.

Those groups must have enough support and members to survive as four groups instead of one.  It makes me wonder if the atmosphere there has finally changed, if perhaps it has become the Christian college we had once prayed for.

But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t attended for twelve years now.  I also couldn’t tell you if the college ever put on another controversial play.  [Note this was written in 2007.]

Index 
Cast of Characters (Work in Progress)

Table of Contents

Freshman Year

September 1991:

 October 1991:

November 1991:

December 1991: Ride the Greyhound

January 1992: Dealing with a Breakup with Probable NVLD

 February 1992:

March 1992: Shawn: Just Friends or Dating?

April 1992: Pledging, Prayer Group–and Peter’s Smear Campaign

May 1992:

Sophomore Year 

Summer 1992:

September 1992:

October 1992–Shawn’s Exasperating Ambivalence:

November 1992:

December 1992:

January 1993:

February 1993:

March 1993:

April 1993:

May 1993:

Summer 1993: Music, Storm and Prophetic Dreams

September 1993:

October 1993:

November 1993:

December 1993:

January 1994:

February 1994:

March 1994:

April 1994:

Senior Year 

June 1994–Bits of Abuse Here and There:

July & August 1994:

January 1995:

February 1995:

March 1995:

April 1995:

May 1995:

 

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