Alan Fox’s Safe Space at Bay Street Theater is a provocative exploration of academic freedom in our call-out culture — and a three-character cage match to control the narrative during a campus crisis.
When we meet the charismatic history instructor Marcus Wood (Rodney Richardson) at fictional Alman College, he’s lecturing about the invention of the printing press, how it empowered individuals and weakened institutions, paving the way for everything from the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock to Wikileaks’ document dumps.
But he soon learns from the college president, Judith Rose (Mercedes Ruehl), that his pending tenure is imperiled by accusations that he violated the college’s promise of providing a “safe learning environment,” with a writing assignment that required rationalizing slavery in the 18th century.
The twist: Professor Wood is black and his chief student antagonist, Jenny Oshiro, (Sasha Diamond) is Japanese American.
Fox, who is his twenties, has an ear for millennial anxieties and resentments. When President Rose apologizes if the history essay assignment made Jenny uncomfortable, the student responds that being ‘triggered’ isn’t about discomfort.
“It’s literally not being able to sleep at night, and not wanting to leave my bed the next morning, because triggers remind me that my emotional safety is not a priority on this campus,” she says.
President Rose answers solemnly that the college must first and foremost be a place of intellectual freedom.
“No, Alman College is first and foremost our home,” Jenny says.
The play is insightful and clever, even about nonprofit governance. (“I like to fundraise around meals so the alumni’s mouths are full and I get to speak uninterrupted,” the president says.) But there’s a generic quality to the characters at Alman, which according to the script is in “Anytown U.S.A.”
And there are plausibility gaps. Would a savvy college president casually threaten to fire someone without first enlisting in-house lawyers and faculty committees? Would an adjunct professor, as Wood is referred to in the script, be up for tenure in the first place? And the proposition that his essay assignment would raise such a ruckus didn’t ring true, at least to someone out of touch with contemporary college life.
Still, I was never bored at Safe Space, a lively one act about the clash of values on campus. It’s conceivable that this developmental production could eventually become a timely star vehicle, provided a few more semesters of work.
Jack O’Brien (All My Sons, The Coast of Utopia ) directed the world premiere, with an elegant wood-paneled set by David Rockwell. The run, through July 21, was enhanced by producers Jeffrey Richards and Amy Pascal, the former head of Sony Pictures.