In the final year of the Reagan Administration, Chapman University officials banned a student-written play for violating what they termed “classic Judeo-Christian religious values.” Despite student and faculty protests, the avant-garde play--the concluding epiphany of which found the male and female leads declaring their “individuality” by stripping away their clothes--never was performed.
“The (college) president won that round,” recalls Greg Hobson, an associate professor at the school and the faculty adviser for the ill-fated play, “The Coloring Box.”
But five years later, with a new administration due in Washington and one in place at Chapman, Hobson may finally have won the fight for his view of “creative freedom.”
True, “The Coloring Box” is not going up--its author, Joel Moffett, now being far removed from Chapman as a graduate student at Humboldt State in Arcata. But Hobson’s latest project--a 30-minute, university-produced film he co-wrote and is directing--not only depicts a thinly fictionalized version of the “Coloring Box” incident but seems destined to win the sort of attention that rarely afforded the quiet, 2,200-student private college in the heart of conservative Orange County.
Headlining the production is Ed Asner, renowned not only as an actor but also as a paragon of the Hollywood activism so often at odds with Orange County’s image. A multiple Emmy Award winner and former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Asner also has been an outspoken advocate of the American Civil Liberties Union, a consistent critic of U.S. support for right-wing movements in Central America and a vigorous campaigner for such Democrats as President-elect Bill Clinton.
On Thursday, though, Asner came to Chapman to play a character far afield from his own views on social issues: Gordon Knight, described in the somewhat polemical script as the “bombastic, power-mad” college president determined not only to ban an offending play but to drive its author out of the fictitious Eminence University.
In “The Naked Truth"--an episode in the Chapman film and television department’s campus soap opera, “Higher Education"--Asner gave his two scenes the intense treatment that has characterized his work from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “JFK.”
In one heavily symbolic scene, a scowling, beady-eyed Asner confronts the student playwright and--as if speaking for every small-minded, wrong-headed Establishment bureaucrat who ever stood in the way of youthful idealism--declares: “I’ll crush you like a bug every time. . . .”
Asner said he enjoyed playing the villain.
“It’s always a wonderful contretemps to playing a goody-two-shoes,” he said.
A Kansas City, Kan., native who studied at the University of Chicago, Asner donated his time as a favor to friends affiliated with Chapman; instructor and script co-author Pamela Ezell had worked as a story assistant on Asner’s television series “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill”; Dan Bowen, a vice president of Asner’s production company, studied film at Chapman before transferring to USC.
(“The Naked Truth,” although produced by a television class, will not be seen on television; because Asner received no pay for his performance, union rules prohibit broadcast of the work. The school plans to screen the production in the spring.)
Students were quick to praise the actor they mainly knew for his television portrayal of crusty newsman Lou Grant.
“He makes a great grumpy president, a real boss,” said junior Brian Morrison, a gaffer whose work included fetching Asner’s sushi lunch from a local eatery. “He comes across as someone you’d be afraid of missing a deadline for.”
Other students noted Asner’s softer side.
“His characters always have an edge; his eyes are so bright; I love him,” gushed Angelique Adams, 22, a junior who appeared in a scene with Asner.
“He’s a macho guy. What comes though in his performances is that he’s a man, but he’s a loving man. He plays that contrast very well: He’s tough yet sensitive,” reflected graduate student Greg Salmi, who was part of the production crew.
Asner even received high marks from an unlikely quarter, given his unflattering portrayal of a university president.
“He certainly has a commanding presence about him. I would want Mr. Asner to play my role,” said James Doti, president of Chapman University, who visited the set to present the actor with a school sweat shirt and other souvenirs.
Many students and faculty members have credited Doti with bringing a more liberal atmosphere to Chapman, which was founded in 1861 by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While taking pains not to directly criticize his predecessors, Doti said, “It’s essential we allow as much academic freedom as possible,” adding that “given (Hobson’s) description of (‘The Coloring Box’), I wouldn’t think it should be censored.”
But while many at Chapman today feel the prior administrators made the wrong decision about “The Coloring Box,” a surprising voice had sympathy for their predicament: that of Asner.
In an interview, Asner said the school had not told him that “The Naked Truth” was based on a real incident, and so he knew little about “The Coloring Box” controversy. But he noted that university officials often must balance academic ideals against the views of less-enlightened trustees and benefactors.
“I don’t commend the (former) president for doing what he did,” Asner said, “but I would ask each of those students: ‘Would you be willing to be kicked out of your job for putting on the play?’ You must each ask yourself that question, especially if you have three kids going to college.”
Asner said that in his experience, nudity can often mar a dramatic work or bring attention to an otherwise unworthy one.
“I certainly went through a prurient youth and young adulthood when I wanted to see all the flesh I could--primarily because it was denied me,” he said. “Once I was allowed to see as much as I could, I found myself being very selective, far more preferring the idea of suggestion” of nudity, rather than its depiction.
“I find the same thing with violence,” he added. “The most frightening moments of violence are those which have been implied, rather than, for example, seeing the bullet enter the middle of the forehead and leave the backside. It has nothing to do with freedom of expression; it’s a matter of taste.”
And one observer--a former student who had in 1988 protested the ban of “The Coloring Box"--suggested that Asner may have deduced something unspoken of Chapman’s now-legendary unproduced play.
“The principle of the thing was important,” said the former student, who was involved in the production, “but I don’t remember the play being all that good to begin with. To me, there was only one reason why that play should never have been produced: It wasn’t any good.”