Scrapping Verdi Is Another Scalp for Race-Fixated Campus Identity Politics

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By Emily Dinsmore | 5:33 am, October 6, 2016

Star-crossed lovers from different castes are lying in each other’s arms, breathing their last. They’re incarcerated deep underground for daring to challenge the suffocating social conventions that have left them literal prisoners of their own identities.

A woman of her race could never know anything of the noble world of a man such as him. It may be the archetypal story of love tragically thwarted trying to transcend rigid social divisions, but that hasn’t stopped it being scrapped for being an insult to racial purity, by fundamentalists devoid of a sense of irony.

Where has this sad display taken place? Not Baghdad or Kabul, but Bristol.

Students at the University of Bristol have abandoned a planned adaptation of the Verdi’s opera “Aida” after their puritanical peers took offence at their disregard for racial identity politics.

Protesters didn’t think that white actors could possibly portray black African Nubian slaves, and so they’ve got the production scrapped.

(Pictured above is a 2011 professional production in Israel – probably a bit flashier than Bristol students would have managed)

Music Theatre Bristol, the society in question, was allegedly guilty of “cultural appropriation”. The objectors are stripping a swathe of young students of an artistic experience because they believe that a white person portraying a slave is an assault on African culture and history. Never mind that the plot hinges on the issue of racism between two African nations, which could be brought out by white actors playing black slaves.

Cancelling this performance of Aida might seem like just another opportunity to roll our eyes at students jumping on a campus censorship bandwagon, but it is deeply troubling. Banning a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros at the University of East Anglia and calling off an Around the World in 80 Days themed party at Cambridge for the sin of cultural appropriation is absurd – but this victory for the campus censors cuts even deeper.

When in 1988 Christian protestors closed cinemas and prevented Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ being for depicting Jesus having sex, they were rightly ridiculed for being too weak to have their ideas challenged. When Christian Voice labelled a student performance of Terence McNally’s play about a gay Christ as “hate-filled mockery” in 2004, no one agreed.

So what’s different about this pseudo-political stunt over Aida? Back then it didn’t need to be said that the whole point of both students and artists is to challenge received wisdom and break with convention. With this latest bit of heroes-and-villains pantomime, the students are denying the very reason they are scholars of the academy: to embrace culture in all its glory and horror, to question orthodoxies, to be offensive and unsettling. Even if it means white students playing black ones.

If we follow the protestors’ logic, we are prisoners of our own identities just as much as lead characters Aida and Radames.

Should we ban poor black kids in Hackney from putting on Romeo and Juliet for appropriating the culture of white, 16th century Italy? The whole of Shakespeare is one great cultural appropriation from Rome to Scotland, Athens to Tunis.

The real tragedy here is that Aida has been pulled. It only serves to send a message that if you care about the arts, you should steer well clear of the modern university, now home to the puritanical ban. Today’s students are too ready to choose self-censorship over art that doesn’t fit their identity-fuelled politics.