On March 31, three students enrolled in the advanced clown class at Denny Triangle's Cornish College of the Arts caused a major disruption in the student body. For their final senior project, the students of the Acting Special Topics class were asked to produce a comical performance about a historical event while applying the methods of exaggerated clown acting that they had been studying for the past year. One group chose to focus on Woodstock. Another chose a trickier subject: the civil rights movement.

The students, by all accounts, were attempting to ridicule white people's ignorance of civil rights history. But to the dismay of many of the 50 students and faculty who attended, the three white students' performance seemed to satirize the civil rights movement itself. According to theater department head Richard White, the three clowns "went through a history of various events in the civil rights movement," including Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, and the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins "in a way that seemed to lampoon those events" by "portraying African-American stereotypes"—in clown costumes, no less—"without a clear context."

"The intent was to make the audience laugh at [the students] in their struggle to portray the civil rights movement, but what happened was, it seemed like they were trying to make them laugh at Rosa Parks," White says.

In a letter to Cornish theater students and faculty, White denounced the performance, calling it "a profound failure on artistic, social, and pedagogical levels." On April 1, Cornish faculty met with the students who developed the piece, the instructor of the clown class and the provost, as well as a faculty member and four African-American students who were outraged by the performance.

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"What happened was painful and humiliating for all of us," White says. "It's fair to say that in every meeting [the students] have had with their peers it has been very clear to them what the consequences of their actions were. I don't know what else I could do to them other than continually engage them in a dialogue." To that end, on April 6, White announced a new committee, called the Student Committee to Promote Understanding and Respect, that will work to promote cultural awareness in the school.


Erica C. Barnett contributed to this article.