I disagree with interim artistic director, Leslie Ishii’s, decision to cancel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” from the 2019/2020 Season at Perseverance Theatre. While her controversial decision includes valued input from certain members of the Alaska Native and theater community, her one-sided opinion skews the play’s overarching positive and profound message and presents a future artistic dilemma for the theater.
Perseverance Theatre missed out on producing a highly revered and multifaceted production due to certain theater patrons’ view that this play is “overpowered by layers of racism and misogyny.” While racism and misogyny were indubitably present in society during this period which is reflected in portions of the play’s dialogue, the words are undertones and are periphery details that shed realism into the 1950s American social context and do not overpower or dilute the powerful and relevant message of the play.
The story’s main premise is about giving voices to people who didn’t know they had a voice. Moreover, it clearly conveys the complexities and resulting beauty of freely communicating with people who are ostracized within rigid institutional systems because they’re different. During this time period though, the medical community did not understand the intricacies of mental health and, as this play conveys, grossly maltreated it. More so, the story touches on mental health through a realistic lens: understanding how life’s circumstances or someone’s upbringing can cause them to have mental health issues vice being labeled crazy because they were born that way.
Cuckoo’s Nest’s protagonist, Randall McMurphy, challenges himself to do this and listens to patients, break controversial practices at the psychiatric hospital, and urges the patients to free themselves from the rigid order that seems to perpetuate their mental issues instead of properly treating or coping with them. He ultimately pushes the patients to be themselves and dismiss the antagonist, Nurse Ratched’s, militant and unbending standards at the hospital. While McMurphy’s rebellious pursuit of the patients’ freedom unveils moments of negative implications and backlash, he ultimately teaches the audience an even broader message beyond mental health treatment: to challenge social, archaic norms and to think critically about how we operate in them. He exposes that we lose worth and our individuality in these systems and our individuality should never be sacrificed regardless of the circumstances. Throughout the play, he endows worth to the patients that they never knew they had through activities outside the physical and institutional boundaries of the hospital. The story, like all great art, taps into various truths of human nature-both light and dark — and has multigenerational relevance.
Ishii’s controversial decision now opens up discussion and interpretation for future plays at Perseverance Theatre. If one reviews the 2018/2019 season, certain plays could have also been banned based on her reasoning. Perhaps “Guys and Dolls” paints women in a demeaning light? “Underpants” certainly had undertones of misogyny and antisemitism. Sadly, Ishii may agree with my devil’s advocate and might ban those as well, yet her reasoning is a popular trend in the art community — what used to be considered masterpieces and representations of their social setting, are now labeled racist and banned from public viewing.
While it is troubling that Ishii made such a massive change to the theater’s 2019/2020 season within weeks of becoming interim director and Perseverance Theater, I am curious if she ever second guessed this decision and recalled a fundamental tenet of art: conveying society’s truth. She may have forgotten that art may dive into deep, murky realms of the universe that we may want to ignore. These realms with rough curtains, if pealed back, may make us uncomfortable, upset us, or create altering opinions but, they are true. Still, you do not have to attend the play or you can attend and boo it. Nonetheless, the theater is neither a church nor a classroom and is not meant to guide you on the path of right-and-wrong necessarily, but it is there to remind you — to dig up fossils we may prefer to have buried. Although Ishii prefers to have ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ buried, it will always and forever live on.
• Evan Rothfeld of Califon, New Jersey, performed in two plays at Perseverance Theatre.