The professor was canceled. Now what? Another ‘intolerant’ professor is higher ed’s toughest subject, the Washington Post headline read. And if Lauren Fein had not been a fictional character, perhaps that would have been the headline running across the front page.
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, a world-premiere play by Christopher Demos-Brown, opened last Friday at Palm Beach Dramaworks, and not surprisingly, it received a standing ovation.
The play is about a fictional university professor accused of various wrongdoings under the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies and what happens to her. “The play was inspired by many events in contemporary America and on personal experiences I’ve had as a lawyer representing people in this kind of university proceedings,” explained Demos-Brown.
In The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, the playwright brings to light the sort of blossoming of cases in the last five years in which professors all across the country are being accused, demoted, fired, and having their careers and personal lives impugned in many different ways. “I became interested in this phenomenon and how the experience of professors sort of speaks to the experience of cancellation more broadly. And that’s what inspired the play,” he said.
The play is presented on a simple stage design, enhanced by a projection backdrop that adds depth to the story and creates a more immersive theatrical experience. The narrative is partly told through the voice of Paola Moreno (played by Diana Garle), Lauren Fein’s wife (played by Niki Fridh).
Moreno, a professor at the same university, is a feisty Latina who doesn’t hold back in telling the audience about her partner’s brilliant mind as well as her faults, namely her stubbornness and hot temper, not to mention a fleeting affair with a student, who threatened their relationship and their family.
The Fein-Moreno family forms a dynamic triangle of diverse backgrounds: Lauren is Jewish, and Paola is a New York Puerto Rican, and together they are the foster parents of Dylan Fein-Moreno, an African American 16-year-old boy, whom his mom abandoned at the age of two. Now a teenager, Dylan is confused as to how he can grow up having two “white moms.”
While Paola tells the audience how she is very much aware of Lauren as both a woman and a gifted scientist, she is having difficulty understanding the university officials’ contention. It starts like a quick slap on the wrist, as Dean Marilyn Whitney (Karen Stehens), a PBD veteran actor, is close friends with Lauren Fein. But, as the accusations surmount and the pressure of being a new dean begins to push Whitney into a corner, the examination of character quickly escalates to an exhaustive investigation that concludes that Lauren Fein has created “a hostile learning environment for her students.”
The university’s claims that Professor Lauren Fein cited comments in class that were racist gave a student reason to drop out of school and another a platform to file a “sexual abuse” complaint. Other charges include suspected wild parties at the professor’s home where an abundance of drugs and wine were supplied to her guests, and those included in the invite were university professors like Evan Reynolds (Bruce Linser) and graduate students like Zoe (Kaelyn Ambert-Gonzalez). At one of those fateful parties, Dylan discovers Lauren in Zoe’s arms and becomes the primary witness to one of Lauren’s alleged indiscretions.
Directed brilliantly by Margaret M. Ledford, the play keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. Scene after scene, we are left waiting for an arbitrator to reverse Fein’s dismissal. But it just doesn’t happen. As the situation goes from bad to worse, Moreno’s apprehension, as well as our own, gets heightened. Like a jury in a court, we are left to follow the prosecutor, in this case, Melanie Jones (Lindsey Corey), the university’s DEI director, as she leads a madman’s hearing. Her ending summation is an undeniable message: ‘This person is toxic to our university.”
As you watch Judge Lorraine Miller (Barbara Sloan) begin to discern the accusations and repercussions, somewhere along the blurry lines, the question of what happens across higher education, with cases similar to Fein, begins to form. As university administrators and officials, Miller and Whitney are tied in knots as they seek to balance free-speech traditions with goals like diversity and inclusion. They also face enormous pressure to act when students point to possible discrimination and harassment in the classroom. And Fein and Moreno, as faculty, especially with tenure, are losing the broad latitude to speak their minds. It is a conundrum best seen in a play, but unfortunately, art mimics real life.
At the end of the play, the playwright, as the respectable lawyer he is, does more than present both sides of the case; he shows the audience the tragic outcome of an innocent woman who said the wrong thing in the wrong place at the worst time in history. He also warns that this is a pattern that seldom leaves anyone satisfied.
In The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, Demos-Brown has demonstrated that he has analyzed and tried similar cases and found that the incidents often presented do much to disrupt the core of American life. In the pursuit of inclusivity, unclear investigations and inquiries turn into court dramas, with a “whodunit” at their core, dividing departments and turning students against their professors. In other occurrences, they end tragically, like in The Cancellation of Lauren Fein.
Demos-Brown is an amazing playwright who makes you laugh and cry and delivers a hard ending. In The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, he delivers a play that reflects life. And, while it is not a lecture, this play motivates us to think: With so many advances and eagerness to change and be inclusive, it’s hard to say what has been accomplished.
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein is now playing until February 24, 2024. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is at 201 Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Florida.