Objections were raised by the undergraduate composition class over Sheng’s showing of the 1965 version of William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” starring actor Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role.
Controversy surrounded Olivier’s version of “Othello” during the time of its release. Critic Bosley Crowther then told the New York Times that the actor in blackface “shocked” him. Olivier’s accent is exaggerated in the 1965 version and Crowther stated that “to ‘the sensitive American viewer,’” Olivier looked like someone in a “minstrel show.”
In a more recent 2015 New York Times article, artistic director of Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello, said that the topic of “Othello” and the use of blackface illustrates the lack of diversity in opera. “If I were casting ‘Othello,’ I would work hard to find a black man who is vocally and dramatically appropriate for the role,” Zambello said. “But if I could not, I certainly would not present another singer ‘blacked up.’”
Bright Sheng, 66, joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1995 and holds the highest rank on the faculty as Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor. He stated that the purpose of the class was to examine how Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. He chose Olivier's rendition as it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare,” and that he had not viewed the makeup as derisive of Black people.
Within hours of the complaints reaching the music department, Sheng responded with an apology statement. “I would like to sincerely apologize for my wrong action of playing the 1965 theatre version of Othello video,” Sheng wrote. “I am fully responsible for this action. This has no bearing on SMTD [School of Music, Theatre and Dance] or the composition department.
“There is a great diverse environment at our department and our school,” he continued. “I am honored to be teaching here. I hope you can accept my apology and see that I do not discriminate.”
As reported by the Michigan Daily, Sheng’s apology instigated further controversy among the students. In an open letter to SMTD’s dean, David Gier, dozens of undergraduates, graduates, and additional faculty and staff objected to Sheng’s apology.
Part of the letter opposed how Sheng listed examples of working with people of color in the past: “Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career.”
Following weeks of emails and canceled classes, it was later announced that Sheng would voluntarily step back from the class to allow for a “positive learning environment,” according to the New York Times.
A day before Sheng’s step down, a student in the class shared their views on the matter in an article on Medium. “I’m still flabbergasted at the naïveté that Prof. Sheng claims to have held towards blackface and the systemic nature of racism in America,” the student wrote.
“‘He’s a former MacArthur ‘genius’ grant recipient,’ I keep telling myself. Surely he knows that a white man smearing black paint on his face and speaking in a slow, deep voice is bound to strike many students as deeply offensive.” This opinion piece spread on Twitter before getting picked up by Newsweek, Fox News, and The Daily Mail.
According to a recent update from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Sheng was informed that the University of Michigan (UM) dropped inquiries into the incident and will not open a formal investigation. For now, Sheng will resume teaching.
As a teenager during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Sheng auditioned for an authorized folk music ensemble to avoid being sent to a farm to be “re-educated.” Sheng wrote to the NY Times stating that “of course, facing criticism for my misjudgment as a professor here is nothing like the experience that many Chinese professors faced during the Cultural Revolution.
“But it feels uncomfortable that we live in an era where people can attempt to destroy the career and reputation of others with public denunciation,” he continued. “I am not too old to learn, and this mistake has taught me much.”
Sheng stated that since the incident he “did more research and learning on the issue and realized that the depth of racism was, and still is, a dangerous part of American culture.”
As reported by Inside Higher Ed, UM spokesperson, Kim Broekhuizen, said that it is “important to note that Prof. Bright Sheng was not removed from teaching his seminar class this fall. The decision to have Prof. Sheng step away from that class was a decision that he and Dean Gier made together. They agreed to that approach and Dean Gier notified students in the class.”
Broekhuizen also stated that all music, theater, and dance educators are required to complete antiracism training, calling for them to “actively engage students with discussions of race and racism in their classrooms.”
She adds that music history “offers lessons that remain significant today, including how blackface minstrelsy as a part of U.S. popular music was both a product of and a way to support racist stereotypes; however, charged lessons such as these must include proper context and should always be presented with care and sensitivity.”