Ujamaa staff and residents walk out of Gaieties, two groups schedule talks

Dec. 1, 2010, 2:10 a.m.

In response to content they found offensive and insensitive, four staff members and 32 residents of Ujamaa walked out of the last Gaieties performance of Big Game Week on Nov. 19, prompting plans of talks between the two parties to discuss concerns and how to move forward.

Ujamaa staff and residents walk out of Gaieties, two groups schedule talks
This year's Gaieties offended some audience members, causing four Ujamaa staff members and 32 Ujamaa residents to walk out 45 minutes into the show. (JENNY CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

Ujamaa resident assistant (RA) Robbie Zimbroff ’12 called the portrayals of certain characters in the show “limited,” saying they “made people feel undervalued” and didn’t fairly represent the Stanford community. Zimbroff and Yvorn Aswad-Thomas ’11, another Ujamaa RA, pointed to the show program’s “lexicon” list, portrayals of Native Americans as visibly intoxicated and an ad-libbed line about dressing up for a party as “Rosa-Parks black” as a few examples that led to the group walking out of the performance about 45 minutes into the show.

But both Zimbroff and Aswad-Thomas said it wasn’t just specific moments but an overall inappropriate attitude that the walkout meant to highlight.

“A lot of content throughout the show was insensitive and put off a lot of kids,” Zimbroff said. Aswad-Thomas added that the show was “alienating,” saying it “showed a kind of blindness we have when engaging in issues of diversity…a lot of residents felt strongly offended by the images in the show.”

This year’s Gaieties producer, Rachel Lindee ’12, emphasized that the lexicon spoofed on all groups on campus, not just selected ones, and that in writing and editing the script for the show, she and director Emily Goldwyn ’11 focused on being mindful of the “fine line” between Gaieties’ tradition of being a “politically incorrect, hilariously over-the-top musical extravaganza,” according to the Ram’s Head Theatrical Society website, and being unnecessarily offensive.

“It was important for us that while our show crosses boundaries, as is tradition of Gaieties, it did not overstep them in a hurtful or mean-spirited manner,” Lindee wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.

The Ram’s Head board of directors has been in talks with Ujamaa staff and has scheduled a meeting to discuss concerns, Lindee said. In a letter to the editor of The Daily, the board apologized for offending audience members and said it would hold a town hall in winter quarter on the same topic.

Zimbroff and Aswad-Thomas were both in favor of continued talks.

“We don’t want this to have been a passive disagreement,” Zimbroff said. “The goal is to have people reflect on their own and collective ways we can create and reshape the understanding of the Stanford community.”

“Gaieties is meant to unite Stanford together,” Aswad-Thomas added. “How can it achieve that goal if people don’t want to go to this show because they feel they won’t be represented?”

Before being performed, the script for Gaieties undergoes approval by the Ram’s Head board and various University officials. This year, according to Lindee, the script was sent to Dean of Religious Life Scotty McLennan and to “an ASSU officer who had a cameo in the show.”

Zimbroff added that he felt it was the responsibility of the administration to reflect on the issue.

Zimbroff and Aswad-Thomas felt the show’s portrayals of certain groups could be damaging to diversity efforts on campus, especially to freshmen, but Lindee said the show addresses diversity in its own way.

“The fact of the matter is that disturbing and divisive stereotypes do exist on campus,” she said. “The way Gaieties deals with them is by portraying these stereotypes in an outlandishly over-the-top manner, not only to generate discussion, but also to combat them by unifying the entire student body through laughter.” Lindee also added that Gaieties strives to be “even-handed” in its portrayals, making an effort not to exclude or include any group unfairly.

But intentions are separate from perceptions, Aswad-Thomas noted.

“The words I use might seem funny, but some of my fellow Cards might not see it that way,” he said.

Ellen Huet is currently a senior staff writer at The Daily; she joined the staff in fall 2008 and served one volume as managing news editor in fall and early winter of 2010-2011. Reach her at ehuet at stanford dot edu. Fan mail and sternly worded complaints are equally welcome.

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