Fresh censorship controversy has taken hold of the University of Bristol’s student body following the cancellation of the Music Theatre Bristol’s society’s production of Aida amid accusations of ‘whitewashing’.
The incident has been misreported in a number of media outlets after it was portrayed that members of the University of Bristol student body were condemning a performance of Guiseppe Verdi’s opera, Aida, when, in fact, the society were intending to perform Elton John’s musical adaptation.
Aida was set to be performed over several nights in the Winston Theatre next term, filling MTB’s Spring slot which saw a sell-out run of West Side Story last year.
Aida features the turbulent love triangle between Aida, a Nubian princess, Amneris, an Egyptian princess, and Radames, the soldier they are both in love with.
The story has been overshadowed, however, by numerous complaints condemning the lack of racial diversity in a cast portraying such a racially diverse set of characters.
An official statement was released on the society’s Facebook page, announcing:
‘It is a great shame that we have had to cancel this show as of course we would not want to cause offence in any way, and that was certainly never our intention.’
‘Our intention was to tell this story, one which surely is better heard than not performed at all.’
One of the key members behind the proposing team for the show expressed his frustration with the cancellations, admitting that it was a ‘sticky situation’ that ‘would be difficult to explain fully on Facebook’.
He told Epigram that the reason he was given was, ‘MTB is a predominantly white society and people were concerned with the idea of white characters cast in African roles – particularly Nubian slaves – a suggestion that we would be whitewashing the show.’
‘The MTB committee was being put under pressure by emails and voices of concern from people and societies, so they kind of had their hands tied and crumbled under the pressure.’
‘They didn’t want a bad reputation which some people were spreading unnecessarily.’
Millie Evans, the University of Bristol student who allegedly instigated the first complaint against the production, announced her objections on social media.
Evans declined to comment on her statement to Epigram.
Marisa Lopes, another student who objected to the staging of Aida, received a response from MTB.
‘While it is true that the show is centred around the love story of a slave and her capture, race is not the predominant issue.’
‘Slavery in this show is very much a product of war and not racial prejudice; that is a conflict of nations and not races.’
‘Aida has been staged numerous times with colour blind casting’
The MTB spokesperson went on to point out that other university societies have produced shows ‘centred on the issue of race’ without the same backlash. ‘For example, last year West Side Story featured a predominantly white cast, while dealing with uses of racial tension and prejudice.’
The reactions to this decision have eclipsed the student sphere, with The Telegraph and The Daily Mail among other outlets reporting on the controversy.
— Andrew Bell (@armcmb) October 4, 2016
Members of the public did not respond favourably to the news.
Conrad Young, member of the Bristol Against Censorship Facebook community and Editor of The Tab Bristol, told The Tab Bristol: ‘Although MTB seemed to approach a sensitive topic with great humility and care, Aida was not to be.
‘The affect that the fear of cultural appropriation has on modern campuses is a sad affair and in this case has damaged the student experience of the people involved and the prospective student audiences.’
The MTB committee also addressed the accusations of racism.
‘Whilst whitewashing is a prevalent issue in the wider theatre industry and one that certainly needs attention, we as a small university society naturally lack the resources and casting opportunities afforded to professional productions. We absolutely welcome greater racial diversity in our society and hoped this show would encourage racial diversity, but we cannot control people’s interest in musical theatre
‘Our function as a university society is to provide enjoyable performance opportunities for all of our members. Thus we believe that as these discussions of racial and cultural appropriation may have continued throughout the year, this would detract greatly from the enjoyment of all students involved in the show, this being our primary societal focus.’
In response to the media frenzy that has developed since the Aida cancellation was announced late last week, they added: ‘As a society we would like to express our surprise at the unprecedented level of what we believe to be inaccurate media attention.’
‘There have been extensive inaccuracies and false truths circulating throughout the press’
‘We as a society have made this decision after much consideration and always with the best intention for our members in mind – we very much wish to continue with providing societal members an extremely enjoyable year of opportunities and to move on from such, now resolved, controversy.’
Regarding the future of the Musical Theatre Bristol, one of the key MTB members behind Aida said,
‘We’ve hit this wall and now we can push past it. We’ve seen what we did wrong – we didn’t talk about it, we didn’t discuss it – but now we will, and it will be addressed.’
‘Musical theatre is all about artistic expression, and I think this is just a case of rumours, people jumping on bandwagons and everything being done behind screens.’
Epigram has reached out to ELA officer Hannah Dualeh, and BME Officer Radhika Jani for comment.
Do you think that the MTB production of ‘Aida’ should have been cancelled or not? Tell us below in the comments or tell us on social media!