Burnsville accused of censorship

The Chameleon Theatre Circle has ended its relationship with Burnsville’s Ames Center.

Complaints stem from Ames Center decision on play

Burnsville officials and the city-owned Ames Center face accusations of censorship months after the center refused to stage a local theater group’s play unless the word “mulatto” was removed from the title.

The accusations come from a group called the National Coalition Against Censorship as well as two City Council members.

“I just think this is something we have to be very cautious of, because we are using the force of the state to censor something. We are,” Council Member Cara Schulz said at a May 9 council work session.

The NCAC said in a May 4 letter to officials they are “barred by the First Amendment from suppressing expression that could potentially generate offense.”

The New York-based NCAC and a group called the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund demanded a public apology from the city.

Other council members and city officials — as well as Ames Center Executive Director Brian Luther, employed by the city-contracted VenuWorks company — defended the city’s right to keep what Luther deemed an offensive, derogatory term off the center’s marquee and other promotional materials.

“And I’ve talked to Joel (City Attorney Joel Jamnik) about this,” Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. “And I can tell you that we’re upholding the First Amendment in terms of what we’re doing.”

Council Member Dan Gustafson, who put the topic on the work session agenda, said the city was “almost on the verge of censorship” by refusing to stage a Chameleon Theatre Circle production of the play “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales.”

The play, by mixed-race actor, director and playwright Duck Washington, was one of six shows Chameleon proposed for its 2017-18 season. The “mulatto” dispute as well as scheduling differences between the company and the center led Chameleon’s board to vote in February to end its annual contracts with the center after the current season, which concludes in June.

The south metro company, which prides itself on presenting an alternative to traditional community theater fare, has been a fixture in the center’s 150-seat black box theater since the center opened in 2009.

Meanwhile, the city-owned Bloomington Center for the Arts has invited Washington to produce his play there in 2018. It’s the Ames Center’s loss, Gustafson said, praising the play’s exploration of issues around biracial identity.

“For God’s sake, that’s a really good discussion to have,” he said. “And the worst part of it is for me, quite frankly, it’s going to be in Bloomington. It’s going to be five miles from here at another government theater, and we didn’t do it. Why is it good enough for Bloomington and not good enough for us?”

Luther told the council his objection came down to one word in the title, “mulatto” — which the playwright himself says is derogatory to many, an issue explored in the play.

“One thing I will not do is censor content onstage,” Luther said.

City policy is to not market performance titles that include profane or offensive language, according to Luther. He said he consulted with city staff about the play. City Manager Heather Johnston said the city defers to Luther’s judgment on such matters.

Kautz and Council Member Dan Kealey said the city has the right to not use its communications channels, such as the center’s marquee or printed bulletins, to put such material in front of people who might not want to see it.

“We’re not stopping the show,” Kealey said.

It’s a problem of the city’s making, said Schulz, who questioned whether cities should own arts centers at all.

“This is a situation we’re in because it’s the situation we put ourselves in,” she said.

Council members have praised Luther and VenuWorks for paring the center’s annual operating losses to a record low $32,447 in 2016. But Gustafson said “promises were made” to local arts groups when the center was being planned and he doesn’t want finances to preclude their access to the center.

Luther said the black box theater is a venue for smaller and local theater groups, and that won’t be lost despite growing demand for the space from commercial users.

“We still see that vision taking place with other groups” after Chameleon’s departure, Luther said. “That outreach has already begun. I don’t see it becoming a strictly commercial space.”

In addition to asking for an apology, the NCAC — a coalition of more than 50 national nonprofits — urged the city to write a formal policy for arts programming to ensure the Ames Center is “in compliance with first Amendment requirements.”

Council members offered no apology May 9, but did agree to discuss arts and free speech with the city attorney at a future work session.