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Questions are Raised as the University of Connecticut Shuts Down the Sold Out Performance of Play About Police Brutality on Opening Night

Even if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to the Food For the Gods show at The Connecticut Repertory Theater that’s completely sold out, you won’t be able to see it—all shows have been cancelled. With the principal given a requirement to keep part of the play about police brutality and racial violence from public viewing – for covid warnings – and students still being allowed to attend in-person classes, selling sporting events, they are beginning to question real reasons for canceling this divergent socio-political play.

Food For the Gods is an immersive audience theatrical experience, written and directed by Nehprii Amenii in response to the killings of black men by the police and other institutions of power. The show was scheduled to open last Friday, with supplies already out of stock. At the start of opening week, a student from the show’s crew tested positive for Covid-19. To ensure the safety of the cast and crew, the company has decided to pause rehearsals and previews on scheduled Wednesdays and Thursdays, and postpone opening night to Friday to ensure the rest of the cast are tested negative throughout the incubation period. Questions immediately began to arise regarding the university’s testing policies, availability, and affordable access to student testing.

The play was originally scheduled to open in October of 2020 and has been pushed back to the fall of 2021 due to Covid-19. This spring, the director and student design team faced the challenge of immersing audiences in increased production with all Covid-19 safety standards. Landscape and lighting designer Kelly Dinault lived up to the task by designing an immersive set that would allow 6 feet of social distancing throughout the show, and Sofia Perez included masks as part of each of her costume designs, for a 15-person ensemble.

With the rest of the cast testing negative during the week, on opening night, the company resumed with a refresher experience without an audience. The show director has been told that production will continue with audiences on Saturday, as long as social distancing protocols can be implemented as part of the show. Already approved social distancing ground plans have been submitted to show that all Covid-19 guidelines have been followed and already included in the production design. Soon after, in a bewildering turn of events, the show director was given the following directive that the show would only be given to the public, if patrons were required to move immediately from the hallway directly to the seats of the house. For a traditional play, this was not an unusual request. However, for immersive productions, this requirement would mean preventing the entire second act of the play from being viewed by an audience. It was a condition that the director did not agree to.

“A production that took 7 months and weeks to physically install to design – lighting fixtures, speaker stands, scenic buildings – simply could not be remodeled within hours of opening night. Additionally,” said Director, Nehprii Amenii “the terms given to me , altering the play would have constituted a direct violation of the licensed script.”

The section of the play that would have been forbidden to the public from viewing contained stories of the murders of black men and a list of “120 black people summarily executed, by police, security guards, and self-appointed law enforcement officials . . . January 1 – June 30.”

When the script modification requirement was rejected, a new directive was shared stating:

“They are not satisfied with having enough time for contact tracing to work. Therefore, we are not allowed to enable Food for the Gods to gather today. There is no place for us to negotiate this guidance, as medical advice.” The theater was closed. Representatives were not allowed to congregate.

The next day, the students received a notice from Anne D’Alleva, Dean of the École des Beaux-Arts, on behalf of Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) stating that in

“Efforts to keep each other safe… All scheduled shows have been cancelled.” And “at the same time, SHaW has advised us that there is no scientific or medical advice against continuing in-person lessons and other personal actions.”

Students from the Department of Display and Performing Arts have begun writing letters of protest and are asking the real reasons why the production was suddenly closed. The stipulation that “this decision to cancel is not related to Covid.” And that “things just don’t pile up”. They demand answers to some of their questions being asked:

“Why is there such an aggressive response to a particular Covid situation, when the university has seen so many people since returning to in-person classes?”

“Why is it safe for the same production students to gather together in a classroom in person with each other but unsafe to gather to perform this show?”

“Why was the show canceled without first notifying the writer and director?”

“How does the university allow gatherings of nearly 10,000 spectators on the basketball court, not to mention the thousands of very special UConn students — by not allowing social distancing and masking? But wouldn’t it allow a convincing performance with a limited audience of 24 people for an out-of-community show?”

One student went so far as to create a petition on change.org to demand fair treatment.

The student petition can be found here.

This production had already seen questionable events before the race was called off. Examples include the sudden disappearance of directors’ personal belongings from the stage, and student actors having to lock and hide their performance items, fearing for the safety of the show.

As a result of a student call over the past week, the school is considering granting production permission to resume production – but only for faculty and their classmates – Food For the Gods will not be shown to the public.

A talented team of student designers have recreated CRT’s Food for the God: powerful choreography by Kira Prosmack, stunning costume design by Carla Sofia Perez, sound design by Elizabeth Shaul, and gorgeous landscape and lighting design by

Kelly Dennault. The props were beautifully created by Aubrey Ellis. Dolls designed and manufactured by Kunzika, Nehprii Amenii, and students of the UCONN Doll Lab. Assistant directing by Will Jenkins and Mackenzie Doss, who has also served as show designer. Dramaturgy of Holly Richmond. The original, scenic geometric designs by Enoch Reise, were brilliantly enhanced by CRT Artistic Director, David Ash, with professional production stage managed by Tom Kosis and dialect coach Julie Foe.

The show was scheduled to be performed by compelling student actors, such as Casey Wortham, Keira Prosmack, Zoe Ecklund, and Tony King alongside a dynamic troupe that doubles as actors and puppeteers: Neri Pajaro, Alison Doyle, Matthew Villanueva, Anthony Stilto, Robert Linnac, Elisa Carson, April Lichtman and André Chan, Yaniv Frank, Paul Flores and Jim Jiang, as well as a company of strong surrogates that include Nicholas Loberto, Abigail Hilditch and Brianna Bellinger Dawson

Food for the Gods premiered at the Tony Award winning experimental theater La Mama, in 2018. The play was first performed at Sarah Lawrence College and then the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Nehprii Amenii is a writer, director, puppeteer, and art director at Brooklyn – Khunum Productions – a creative anthropology platform, that uses visual theater to enhance human communication. For more information about Khunum Productions and Food for the Gods, visit khunumproductions.com.

The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the producing arm of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Performing Arts. Produced under a year-round contract with the Equity Society, CRT serves as the cultural center for Connecticut and the New England region. CRT products are directed, designed, and featured with professional visiting artists, including Equity representatives, faculty, and the department’s most advanced student artists. CRT operates on the belief that the synergy between professional and advanced artists creates a unique learning environment for the development of exceptional theater. CRT is also the performance outlet for the internationally acclaimed Department of Performing Arts’ puppet arts program, the only degree-granting puppet program of its kind in the United States.

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