Nobles Confronts Outdated Pronouns in Bright Star, the Musical

Why did Ernest Hemingway cry, bang his fist against the floor, and sob? “He used the word ‘their’ as a singular pronoun.” For some, this might just be a line from the musical "Bright Star" – Nobles’ 2019 winter theater production – that would earn a laugh from the audience. But for many others, this would make them stop and think about the non-binary preference to identify using “them.” For those that identify as ‘they’, the line may be hurtful, using their identity as a joke. So, audience members heard Lucy say the line “he used a comma between two independent clauses” instead during the musical.

When is it OK for a play to be changed? It is not uncommon for a director to change the name/gender of a character, tweak some lines, add in a song from the movie version, switch the setting, or remove curse words. But, where is the line between changing a few words and changing the entire ending of a play?

According to Performing Arts Department Chair and director of "Bright Star" Dan Halperin, theatre companies sign contracts with the licensing agencies when they buy the rights to the show. This means that they are legally bound to say all of the lines as written by the author unless the piece is in public domain (ie. if the author has been dead for 70 years). However, directors are able to (and often do) change the stage directions, as long as a line doesn’t prevent them from doing so.

Not only is changing lines legally wrong, but it is also ethically wrong. Authors write (and rewrite) their play with meticulous intent, so changing a line could mess up all of that work. “Writers think about a lot more than we give them credit for, even the smaller lines that don’t seem as important,” Henry Dolgoff (Class I) said, who played Jimmy Ray in the musical. Halperin said, “I think the ethics of it are more important than the legality.”

Halperin didn’t want to violate the contract he signed and he didn’t want to change the work of the playwright. But, he also knew that he had a legitimate reason for changing it. Halperin said, “I believed that when 'Bright Star' was written (five years ago), we weren’t as a society as far along with our understanding of gender, and our vocabulary around gender.” The line as written would be distracting to the plot and take away from what the writer intended the line to mean. Dolgoff said, “I don’t think the line before it was changed worked for the kind of audience that we’re trying to appeal to.”

Halperin contacted the licensing agency, who then contacted the writer and voiced the concern over the line. Playwrights tend to be responsive when they are able to be contacted, which is not easy to make happen because they are often in high demand. “People want their work produced,” Halperin said, who was able to vocalize his concerns directly over email. Once the author understood the problem with the line, he was able to write a replacement line for Nobles production.

“I thought the line was really funny. I find nerdy English humor hilarious,” Saffiyah Coker (Class II) said, who saw the musical and loved it. She said the funniest part of the musical was the interactions between the characters Lucy — who says this line — and Daryl. After being told the original line, Coker said, “The original line is funny too. At the moment, I may have considered the fact that it was a non binary pronoun.” But she said that she would have still laughed because the setting of the show, 1940’s North Carolina, warrants a different understanding of the pronoun ‘they.’ After the show, she said, she might “consider the choice and think more about the line.”

Karina Cowperthwaite (Class I) played Lucy Grant, the flirtatious editor for the Asheville Southern Journal. In the first read through, she didn’t pay much attention to the line. “I noticed that it [the line] had a different context once it was pointed out because I know people who identify as non-binary and who use they/them,” she said. But she highlighted a different reason for the urge to change the line. Cowperthwaite thought that “if people weren’t as well versed in the spectrum of gender and different pronouns,” they might “think it’s OK to make fun of using plural pronouns as a choice.”

“I think there is an argument to say that it is OK to keep it in because it was a different time period with different social settings,” Cowperthwaite said, “but we have to keep in mind: what kind of production and school do we want to be? What kind of message do we want to send?”

By Julia Temple, Staff Writer, March 2019

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