AU student production takes creative look at free expression, asks tough questions

ALFRED — Would you like to see and hear a wide-ranging conversation about free speech, its historical underpinnings, its value, the “dangers” unlimited speech poses, and perhaps the real-world threats to free expression?

If your answer is yes, Alfred University students and guest director Dara Malina have created a theater production called “Who is Freedom and Why Should We Speech?” that will deal with some of these fascinating and complicated issues.

Performances are scheduled for tonight through Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. in the C.D. Smith II Theater in the Miller Performing Arts Center, on the campus of Alfred University. Admission at the door is by donation.

Malina, a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in theater directing at Columbia University, said one goal of the performances is to start a conversation about free speech and First Amendment rights, which the production notes is a difficult topic, continuing to grow and change every day in the United States.

To call this Alfred University student-driven production topical would be a gross understatement. One of the most intense debates in the country right now is over NFL players “taking a knee” during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice. President Trump has condemned the peaceful protest, encouraging team owners to “fire” protesting players.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking at Georgetown University Tuesday, said “freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” referencing a survey of 450 colleges and universities by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which found that 40 percent "maintain speech codes that substantially infringe on constitutionally protected speech."

Notably, Sessions said he agreed with Trump that NFL players should be fired for protesting during the anthem.

Not surprisingly, Malina, according to the university, said students are asking “How did this happen? In a post-logic world where facts are feelings and news is fake, and institutions and ideals are being dismantled, how do we construct meaning?”

The play is about one hour in length, with Malina describing it as a “series of short themes inside a larger performance.” The production has evolved and developed over four weeks of intense work, which has included improvisation, then scripting the improvising and workshopping the scenes in rehearsals. Some final decisions about what will be performed were still being decided as rehearsals wrapped up this week ahead of tonight’s first performance.

Malina has nothing but praise for the Alfred University students involved in the production. Six students will appear on stage, and four others have important off-stage roles. Malina said the performance comes from the perspective of college students, with a mixture of theater majors, along with engineering and chemistry students, as part of the team.

“The students are doing a wonderful job dealing with these issues,” Malina said. “They have really stepped up to the challenge.”

According to a University press release for “Who is Freedom and Why Should We Speech?, Malina says she came to Alfred University as a guest director “knowing I wanted to make something happen with students that felt inspired by our current politics. When I visited in the spring for a week-long workshop, the students and I fully jumped into a post-logic state, using Dada and nonsense as the driving inspiration to create a collaged piece of American politics where nothing seemed to make sense anymore. It was a hysterical response to feelings not yet processed.”

Students are now asking, through their production, pointed questions: How did we get here? What are American values? What are the tenets on which our country was founded and how are they affecting our contemporary moment? Should free speech be protected? Should free speech be limited? Why?

Malina says students “invite the audience to consider our topic, our performative response and have a conversation.”

Malina is a director of theater, performance, opera and video. Her experiments in performance include Muller’s “HamletMachine,” “Lilith,” “Blanche in a Box,” “Hysteria Project/Beautiful Women Eating Cake,” “Les Boudoirs Des Deux Femmes,” and “The Post-Structuralist Utopia: Now, With Cats!”