A production by the theatre department titled “The Foreigner,” which includes a scene portraying Ku Klux Klan members, was recently canceled for being too divisive. The name of the Fredric March Theatre is also up for discussion since it was recently announced that Fredric March had ties to a KKK youth group.
According to an email sent out Feb. 8 from Theatre Chair Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft, “The Foreigner” is a satirical comedy that condemns bigotry and extremism and has been well received by audiences for decades.
In the email, Purse-Wiedenhoeft stated, “But, at present, we find nothing funny about the KKK and what is happening across our country. We firmly believe that artistic freedom is an important and vital aspect of what the arts have to offer. Sometimes, this means affecting the audiences’ experience so that they seriously consider an idea, event or historical time period. It also means knowing when not to do so.”
UWO senior Bryan Carter said as an African American, he thinks “The Foreigner” is a fantastically hilarious production that he read and saw in anticipation for the current season.
“However, I did not see any room for actors of color in that show,” Carter said. “Colorblind casting is real, but sometimes it cannot be done while maintaining the suspension of disbelief. I am very pleased that our department chair chose to switch out the show as it gives me an opportunity to audition for another great show that I see a role in for me.”
The name of the Fredric March Theatre has been up for discussion since March, when it was released by a task force group in UW Madison that March was affiliated with a KKK youth group, which was pictured in the 1921 Badger Yearbook.
Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Support of Inclusive Excellence Sylvia Carey-Butler said the chancellor asked her to lead an initiative to take a look at the theater and make recommendations.
Carey-Butler said she asked Purse-Wiedenhoeft to co-chair a committee to address the name of the theater.
“I would like to invite students who are interested,” Carey-Butler said. “We are going to set up a date for the forum, to come to the forum and if they’d be interested once they hear from us to join the work group.”
Carey-Butler said she doesn’t have an end in mind and she wants the process to be organic.
“I’m not saying the name must come down,” Carey-Butler said. “Rather, I want to explore who he was and what the body of his work was and what was his life. Where was he at the end of his life? If we don’t give room for people to be different, to grow, to learn, even after membership and the KKK, however deep it was in its earlier configuration, then we’re not giving anyone any time or any room to grow.”
Carey-Butler said she plans to send out more background information to students so they are prepared to talk in-depth at the forum.
“I suspect a lot of students aren’t aware,” Carey-Butler said. “I suspect that there are some students who are aware, but there’s a lot of students from day to day who kind of go about their business and aren’t even aware of it. Quite frankly, I wasn’t even aware of it until it became an issue, and I said ‘Wow, oh boy, we’ve got something here.’ But I didn’t want to react to it, I wanted to respond to it.”
Carey-Butler said she feels differently about Fredric March than she does about the Virginia governor, who was recently discovered to have been affiliated with the KKK.
“The reason that I do [feel differently] was because the governor of Virginia was 25 years old and at medical school, and at that point in your life you’ve made some decisions, you’ve taken on adult responsibilities, you’ve been exposed to communities, and this was in the ‘80s,” Carey-Butler said.
Purse-Wiedenhoeft said she is glad that it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to come to a decision.
“We’ve been gradually checking on this and coming to things,” Purse-Wiedenhoeft said. “At first it was sort of waiting to hear how Madison was proceeding, but now it’s like, this is out there, let’s see what the decision should be.”
Carter said March lived from 1897 to 1975.
“Who from the 20th century wasn’t involved in the KKK?” Carter said. “Like, seriously. This false narrative that we live in a post-racial society is giving everyone amnesia about the reality of America’s DNA. It is up to each of us to understand the reality of our history but also to move forward against patterns of the past.”
Carter said March died in 1975, which was around when the theater was built. Carter said nobody besides a true thespian would know who March is.
“A new name honoring someone more contemporary to our current community will bring in new audience members and revenue streams,” Carter said. “However, the committee should be comprised of individuals who have actively invested in the theater community of UW Oshkosh. I would hate to see a pool of random individuals sitting on a committee to name a theater that they rarely attend.”
Purse-Wiedenhoeft said a production of “Boeing, Boeing” will replace “The Foreigner” in early May of this year.