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Canceled play at UConn sparks questions among students involved as to why

Students were eventually able to perform for the UConn community. However, the writer & director said the public regional debut was canceled with no contingencies.

HARTFORD, Conn — "Food for the Gods" is an immersive play written in response to racialized violence and police brutality against black men in America. 

"This is a piece to keep the names alive and to keep them honored," said "Food For The Gods" Writer and Director Nehprii Amenii. "And then it's to also keep people aware of what is happening."

Amenii said the play initially made its debut in New York in 2018 and was set to make its regional debut in Connecticut in 2020.

"It was exciting, UConn contacted me in 2020, asking to produce the play," recounted Amenii. "And I was excited to do so, but of course, as we all know, shortly after making all of the arrangements, the bottom fell out."  

The pandemic postponed the play, and adjustments had to be made to put on a safe and immersive theater experience while not compromising the licensing of the play. 

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"We had taken all these steps throughout the entire process to make sure that we would be able to prevent COVID spread if a COVID infection were to come into our space," explained UConn student and cast member Yanniv Frank.

However, Frank said despite those safety measures, when two people in the play tested positive for COVID, the university canceled the performance. 

"It seems like all of the work that we had done was all of a sudden not good enough, even though it had all been approved for this exact circumstance," Frank said. "We initially got the email that said, all performances of Food for the Gods have been canceled, period."

He said everyone involved with the production tested negative for COVID multiple times. Still, he said the University said production was a no-go, which left the cast and crew lingering with questions on whether the play's content or the students' safety was the issue. 

"This felt different," said Frank. "It just felt very confusing like we weren't getting the full story."

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Students in the play wrote letters to faculty on their concerns and UConn released a statement that reads in part, "The cancellations were directly tied to health and safety precautions and had no connection to the performance's content."

Students were eventually able to perform for the UConn community. However, Amenii said the public regional debut was canceled with no contingencies.

"It makes you wonder why this work wasn't given the respect or treated as it's important enough to for us to figure out what it is that we're going to do," said Amenii. 

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FULL University of Connecticut statement: 

UConn and the School of Fine Arts fully supports the "Food for the Gods" performance and content, and shares the participants' disappointment that public productions scheduled by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre this month could not take place. The cancellations were directly tied to health and safety precautions and had no connection to the performance's content.

The decision was necessary because more than one person connected to the production tested positive for the COVID virus, triggering the need to conduct careful contact tracing necessary to determine and stop any potential spread among others. Once that tracing was completed and we had assurance that potential spread had been averted, CRT was able to stage a well-received performance over the weekend for University faculty, staff, and students.

This was possible because UConn employees and students are highly vaccinated populations whose status is reported to the University, and whose COVID exposure is more readily known and tracked than audience members whose vaccination status is not known to the University.

UConn, the School of Fine Arts, and others connected with "Food for the Gods" at CRT fully support its author, its content, and the important topics it explores and messages it shares.

The School of Fine Arts is deeply committed to anti-racism initiatives, including providing a research grant program to support scholarly and creative projects among faculty, such as exhibitions and programming for "Puppetry's Racial Reckoning" at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry this year.

The SFA instituted diversity hiring guidelines for faculty and staff searches in 2020; and holds yearly listening sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion in collaboration with UConn's cultural centers with faculty, staff, and students. SFA Dean Anne D'Alleva also hosts a yearly Diversity Roundtable with SFA alumni, and the school is working on a comprehensive DEI strategic plan to be completed and implemented in the spring semester.

Anne D'Alleva, Dean of School of Fine Arts of University of Connecticut, added: 

"Canceling performances was not a decision we undertook lightly. We all grieved the loss of this opportunity to connect around the issues of racialized violence that the play addresses in such a moving and profound way. Our students, faculty, and staff had invested many hours in this production, guided by the director and playwright Nehprii Amenii, and we were grateful that we were able to have a limited number of performances for a University audience."

Raquel Harrington is the race and culture reporter at FOX61 News. She can be reached at rharrington@fox61.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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