Sophia Larsen approached MU’s Speakers Circle on a mission. She, nine classmates and her professor were determined to take it back in the name of academia.
On Friday afternoon, evangelist preacher George “Brother Jed” Smock — a familiar face at the circle — compared electrical cords to male and female genitalia. Shortly after 2 p.m., however, Smock stepped aside as the students took over the circle and recited a sordid love story including plot points about subjects Smock frequently condemns: sex, alcohol and being transgender.
William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was under way.
Karen Laird, an English doctoral student who is teaching introduction to British literature, said her class read the play at the beginning of the semester, and she challenged them to perform selected scenes to encourage others on campus to use Speakers Circle for intellectual debates and discussions.
Speakers Circle is an area on campus where groups are allowed to gather without a permit. “Normally I start the semester by asking the class what they think about campus, and some students told me they felt uncomfortable walking through the circle,” Laird said. “They feel groups from outside the community are coming in. The topics are not approached in the spirit of academic inquiry but are more interested in harassing students for their lifestyle choices.”
The play’s directors, sophomores Mary Hootkins, Savannah Duncan and Larsen, said they were discouraged by how the circle has been used as a platform recently by some to attack students.
“We want people to understand the space is for students and not just religious fanatics,” Larsen said.
Ten students rehearsed the final two acts of “Twelfth Night” for six weeks in preparation for the showcase at Speakers Circle. Duncan said she and her classmates chose the play because of its discussion about sexuality and gender roles. In the play, protagonist Viola disguises herself as a man, and a love triangle develops between Viola, a man and another woman.
Duncan said it was a coincidence that they performed on a day that Smock spoke, but it was fitting given the play’s themes. Smock’s sermon condemned homosexuality and said, like electrical cords, people are only supposed to fit together one way.
Smock, who lives in Columbia but travels throughout the country preaching on college campuses, said students don’t utilize the space enough and should take advantage of the fact that the university provides a place where they can gather without requiring a permit for events.
“Speech and theater teachers ought to require students to perform where there might not be a favorable audience,” he said. “College students ought to be ready to exchange ideas in a public forum. There’s too little of that occurring here.”
The students involved in the play will earn credit in lieu of writing a paper their classmates are writing.
“I’m really proud of them for taking this project on,” Laird said. “I hope people were inspired by their efforts, and it will be the start of undergraduates using the space more creatively.”
Duncan said she wants others on campus to realize positive, lively exchanges can occur in Speakers Circle.
“I hope that people realize that all the things that go on in Speakers Circle aren’t necessarily negative,” she said. “If even one person comes out here to read poetry or whatever it’s worth it.”
Freshman Alex Branson said the performance was a refreshing change at Speakers Circle.
“It was better than listening to a man yell ‘No, no homo,’” he said.