If Shakespeare Were Alive Today, Would His Own Festival Boycott Him?

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David Benkof Contributor
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In a tale marbled with irony, an Ashland bookseller is blaming her store’s closing on a boycott by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). That organization, ostensibly devoted to artistic expression, has refused to do business with Shakespeare Books & Antiques because of the specific way it communicated a cherished idea.

The idea being expressed? That censorship is wrong.

Welcome to free speech in 2016, when all kinds of ideas may flourish – unless they violate cherished notions about racial identity, in which case the speaker must be punished.

The specifics and timeline vary across media reports and people’s memories, and the parties are vehement about unimportant details, but nobody’s version justifies OSF’s action. Something like this happened:

For four years, proprietor Judi Honoré has displayed a selection of banned books in her store’s window – The Diary of Anne Frank, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s her stand for free expression.

OSF, one of Ashland’s two largest employers, is featuring The Wiz this season (I enjoyed it on a visit last month). Four cast members walking by Honoré’s display were upset to see The Wizard of Oz sitting next to the racially stereotypical children’s book Little Black Sambo.

The cast members asked Honoré, who hadn’t even known The Wiz was playing, to separate the books. The actors helped her move them, they hugged, and the bookseller figured the episode was over.

Soon, though, she began to hear the cast members were continuing to complain (OSF disputes this). Then, the bookstore received a letter on festival stationery avowing that OSF staff would make no future festival purchases there.

Next, Honoré met with OSF director Cynthia Rider, who defended the boycott, saying the display was causing pain to members of her staff.

(Note: OSF staff members claim it’s not a boycott, but since the dictionary says a boycotter “withdraw(s) from commercial or social relations with [an] organization or person as a punishment or protest,” they’re factually incorrect.)

Defiant at being told how to express herself, Honoré moved The Wizard of Oz and Little Black Sambo back together for a few hours, “when I was feeling blindsided, betrayed, and hurt,” she told me.

OSF’s defense of its actions does not hold up under scrutiny. For example, festival spokesman Eddie Wallace wrote me that the Wiz actors “were treated in a manner that was offensive and racially insensitive.” When I asked for details of this treatment – racial slurs? acts of discrimination? – he identified the “offensive and racially insensitive” treatment as the way the books were displayed in Honoré’s window.

Similarly, Artistic Director Bill Rauch wrote in a letter to the community that since the boycott began, “we’ve received numerous reports from staff and patrons about problematic and insensitive interactions in and outside of her store and on the OSF campus.” I asked Wallace if the interactions had been racial, and he said yes. But the worst example he could come up with was Honoré asking a Latino member of the OSF staff if she were black.

Apparently in discussing racial identity you mustn’t discuss people’s racial identities – lest you be “insensitive” or worse.

OSF’s pretense that the problem is anything other than the public display of Little Black Sambo is belied by Rider’s complaint to a local newspaper last month that Honoré “knows how we feel” but “continues to display the book.” (When asked whether Rider had ever read Sambo, OSF staff would not answer.)

Much of OSF’s stance is exceedingly pious. For example, Rauch’s letter claims he is troubled that media coverage of the controversy has never included the voices of the black actors “who were originally pained by the nature of the display.”

But when I asked to speak with the cast members, Wallace said they’re not willing to go on record. Yet the media is somehow silencing them? Festival communications manager Julie Cortez chimed in, explaining that in cases like this “people of color would not speak up about oppression because they are used to not being believed.”

I asked her if she thought the bookstore display was an example of “oppression” against people of color. She paused and said no.

The OSF is unrepentant. From Rauch’s letter, again: “To this day, I have yet to hear a persuasive argument for the juxtaposition of these two books, other than testing the limits of free expression with offensive messaging.”

Well, Mr. Rauch, in America nobody needs to come before an Artistic Director to make an “argument” before airing her idea. In fact, nobody made an argument before adapting The Wizard of Oz with an African-American cast and urban sensibility. Yet here we are.

I understand the that hateful stereotypes cause real pain. But freedom involves pain. While a private organization like OSF has the right to shop wherever it wants, this very public controversy has put serious economic pressure on Honoré, leading her to close up shop. (OSF claims the closing was long-planned, but Wallace offered no evidence, saying as a journalist I could investigate it myself.)

I would expect any artistic organization to encourage the widest free expression, including of ideas that make people uncomfortable. That’s the point of a banned books display – and, I would hope, of a Shakespeare festival.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.