Cancel culture, the effort to hold prominent individuals accountable for perceived verbal slights or deeds, has become increasingly prevalent in contemporary life. So perhaps it was inevitable that the phenomenon would make the leap from the headlines to the stage, as it does in The Cancellation of Lauren Fein, premiering at Palm Beach Dramaworks beginning this Friday, Feb. 2.
Writing this tale of a fictional professor accused of breaking her university’s DEI (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”) policies, is playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, a Miami civil trial attorney who has first-hand experience representing those caught in the web of cancel culture.
Although inspired by the notorious 2015 case of Nick Christakis at Yale, Demos-Brown says, “Every character in this play is an amalgam of pieces and personality traits and aspects of myself, but they’re all fictional.”
His title character is a world-renowned researcher in biology, a lesbian married to a professor in the theater and film department who have jointly raised an African-American foster child.
Demos-Brown says he chose those details because “I hope an audience will come in with certain assumptions about that family. I wanted it to be very specific so that you have to learn about these people and what their relationships are, to sort of confound your expectations and perhaps prejudices a little bit.”
Although he was already familiar with DEI, Demos-Brown took a deep dive into that university landscape as research for the play. “I would venture to say I probably read more DEI policies than anyone who’s not in the business of writing them or implementing them,” he says. “They differ widely. Some are really fascinating. Some of them are extremely badly written.”
The Cancellation of Lauren Fein will be Demos-Brown’s debut at Dramaworks, which commissioned the play from him. “Bill (Hayes, PBD’s producing artistic director) and I have been talking for many years about trying to work together. He’d invite me to lunch once or twice a year, we’d get together and he’d say, ‘What are you working on?’ and I told him three ideas. And he said, ‘That one. That’s the one. Come back with that idea a little more fleshed out.’ A couple of weeks after that, I sat down with him, I pitched Lauren Fein and he said, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s do it.’”
Demos-Brown met occasionally with Hayes and Bruce Linser, who heads the company’s new play development program, discussing and refining the script. Then in August, Dramaworks held a three-day workshop for the play with most of what would be the world premiere cast. But unlike scripts in the company’s new play festival, The Cancellation of Lauren Fein has not yet been tested before the public.
“I’ve never done that before,” notes Demos-Brown. “I’ve never had a play open that had never been read before an audience.”
Directing the production will be Margaret Ledford, who joined on relatively late in the process. On her first encounter with the script, she was struck by how “incredibly timely it was. I thought it was so very reminiscent of plays like ‘Oleanna,’ as well as ‘Doubt.’ That so many perspectives were put in one play,” she says. “I think what a person takes away from it has a lot to do with what they themselves bring into the theater, as well as what is presented before them. Hopefully good theater starts great conversations.”
As she says of the play, “I think it is a fabulous piece, with high stakes and drama, with a lot of comedic moments in it, which really is my wheelhouse. I love plays that make you laugh and then go, ‘Oh, my God.’
“His sense of pacing, his sense of timing, his humor is great,” she says of Demos-Brown. “He writes incredibly intelligent characters that are passionate. His writing reminds me a lot of Aaron Sorkin.”
As Demos-Brown says of his director, “She fills a really important gap in my theatrical sense. I think I have a pretty good sense of text, structure, what can and can’t be done, making sure I’m not creating impossible costume changes, things like that. But when it comes to stage composition, where lights and sound are going to be able to move things along and create atmosphere, she’s really good at that.
“And Margaret is a no-B.S. director, in terms of wasting time, sitting around and navel gazing about what the script means. She’s a let’s-get-it-up-on-its-feet-and-figure-out-what-it-means director, which I love.”
The script was close to its final form by the time Ledford became involved, but she was still able to affect the text. “I have opinions, and Chris is very open to anyone’s opinion and/or perspective about the play. So he and I have conversations about what we’re really trying to do in each moment, as well as what we’re trying to do for each scene,” Ledford says. “He’s really open to making this the strongest, tightest script possible.”
Ultimately, Demos-Brown feels that the play is about more than cancel culture. “The ‘cancel’ aspect of the play and the fact that it’s in the title, I think that’s only partly what the play’s about,” he says. “The play, I think and hope, is really about much larger, broader themes of human behavior and about the rules we choose to live by.
“One of the things I don’t think people pay a lot of attention to is due process, what it means and how important it is. That’s part of what the play is about. There are a lot of places where you see due process working and where you see it not working. And you see the importance of both.”
In 2018, Demos-Brown’s police precinct play American Son moved from Miami’s Zoetic Stage to Broadway, but he is making no such prediction for Lauren Fein. “Having gotten a play on Broadway, I never count on that,” he says. “I would love for any of my plays to get to Broadway, just because it’s a big audience and I’ve got two kids to put through college. But that’s not what’s foremost in my mind. I want to see this production do well.”
He feels optimistic about The Cancellation of Lauren Fein because, as he puts it, “This play is three things that, at least for me, makes me want to go to theater. It is a whodunit thriller, it is funny, it moves a mile a minute, and it has, I think, profound themes that affect American life.”
THE CANCELLATION OF LAUREN FEIN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Fri., Feb. 2 – Sun., Feb. 18. $89. 561-514-4042, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org