Artists are speaking out following the cancellation of Cleveland Play House's planned production of Charly Evon Simpson's I'm Back Now. The production, originally scheduled to run February 4–26, was in rehearsals when the run was abruptly cancelled last month. The cancellation was described as the Play House's choice in media reports. But Stori Ayers, the production's director, says in a Facebook post that Simpson pulled the rights following an incident involving a sexual assault of a company member.
"I said NO to my play being the site of and excuse for further harm," wrote Simpson in her own statement, confirming Ayers' version of events. "I said YES to prioritizing the health, well-being, and safety of the I'm Back Now company." The statement was later signal boosted by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage.
Read Simpson and Ayers' full statements below:
I SAID NO TO HAVING MY PLAY DONE AT CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE.— Charly Evon Simpson (@CharlyESimpson) February 8, 2023
What follows is a statement from me and a longer one from director Stori Ayers about why she stepped away and why I pulled the rights to my play. pic.twitter.com/a2ARKQfOUc
Requests sent to Interim Artistic and Managing Director Mark Cuddy and other Play House leadership for comment were not returned.
Ayers writes that she became concerned for a member of the cast during a rehearsal. When she checked in with the actor privately, Ayers learned the actor had been sexually assaulted in the elevators of her Cleveland Play House-provided housing the week prior. The incident was immediately reported, but Cleveland Play House did little to address it. According to Ayers, the theatre did not re-house the actor, choosing instead to leave her in the scene of her attack. The Playhouse also did not inform any other company members of the potential danger in the building, did not provide any rehearsal schedule adjustment for the victim, and withheld information about the incident from Ayers, leaving her "incapable of fostering and creating a safe environment for all of the artists in the room."
The director also noted that by contrast, Cleveland Play House had a vigorous and fast response in the wake of a break-in that took place the day after the sexual assault. According to Ayers, the break-in was immediately reported by the company's AEA deputy and additional locks were requested for all doors.
"The behavior of Cleveland Play House was not just harmful. It was criminal," writes Ayers. "Mark Cuddy, the artistic director, never contacted the artist who survived the sexual violence. He never offered an apology or a comforting word. His excuse for not telling me about the sexual assault was that it 'wasn't at the forefront of his mind.' Mark Cuddy is still employed at Cleveland Play House. Shame on the board of directors."
To Ayers, the incident is just the latest in a long line of troubling decisions around the theatre's leadership, especially in relation to its anti-racism efforts. Ayers was part of the Play House's Artistic Director Fellowship in 2020. She resigned from the post, saying it was because the theatre's board retracted an anti-racist statement that was released following the murder of George Floyd. Ayers says she was enticed to return to the institution for I'm Back Now as a "restorative justice attempt" following changes in the theatre's leadership that made her believe the "racist white supremacist theatre-making culture" been addressed. According to Ayers, "the restorative justice attempt failed miserably."
The director aired her grievances to Cuddy and resigned from the production with a January 15 email. It remains unclear if Cuddy responded to that correspondence.