Teacher, Student Grapple with Identity in ‘Third’


Juliette Greene, Staff Photographer

College sophomore Julia Butterfield and College first-year Casey McKinney share a conversation in Third. The play, performed April 7–10 at the Little Theater, deals with political identity on college campuses.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

At its core, playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s Third, which opened in the Little Theater last weekend and ran until Sunday, is about politics, relationships and the way that we interact with people whose opinions differ from our own. Set on the campus of an unnamed liberal arts college, Third tells the story of Professor Laurie Jameson, played by College sophomore Julia Butterfield. During the course of the play, she is forced to confront her daughter’s choices, her father’s memory loss, her friend’s cancer and a student named Woodson Bull III, or Third (College first-year Casey McKinney), who challenges her understanding of the world as he seeks to expand his own. Teacher and student clash as Laurie attempts to discipline Third for an essay that she does not believe he was capable of writing on his own.

“[A line] that really resonates with me … ended up being the basis of how I understood my character,” Butterfield said. “It’s where [Jameson] says, ‘When I was 20, I thought I would change the world, and all I did was change the English department.’ For me, this was a way to think about or understand the perspective of people from my parent’s generation and others who expected things to be more different now than they actually are in terms of oppression and equality and opportunity.”

“[Wendy Wasserstein’s] whole career was talking about women grappling with feminism and the world at large,” said Maggie Bussard, College senior and director of the production. “That started more on the individual level, with [questions] like ‘Am I a feminist?’ and ‘What does it mean to be a feminist?’ This [play tells the story of] what happens when you’ve got that type of woman [who has grappled with these questions], but she’s in her 50s, middle aged, has her own kids. How does she end up seeing the world from that lens when stuff is very different in the world around her? This play is a lot more about political polarization than actually feminism, but it comes from a place of asking what happens when a woman has her very set opinions challenged, some of which are part of the feminist tradition but some of which include other things as well.”

While Third discusses feminism, another of its main themes is the interaction between people on opposing sides of the political spectrum. Many actors said Oberlin’s campus culture is well-reflected in the play. They also said they hope that this production will encourage students and community members to look at people and new ideas in a different light.

“The first thing that struck me about the play was how much it reminded me of Oberlin, just in terms of the characters and the situations that the characters were in and the beliefs that some of the characters had,” McKinney said. “It almost felt like it was based on Oberlin, in a way.” College first-year Kathleen Leonard, who played Professor Jameson’s daughter Emily, agreed. “Even here at Oberlin, there’s this status and superiority that people feel, like they’re trying to out-liberal each other, trying to be the most intellectual, the most politically correct,” Leonard said. “The idea of limiting perspectives is really big in this show, and I think that it’s much easier to limit your perspective than you think. It’s very easy to think that you are open and welcoming. Especially people who identify as liberal intellectuals will think that they are open in the right way and yet will dismiss someone who’s Southern or an athlete or uninterested in politics as simply wrong rather than simply different.”

Bussard used the set to emphasize the connections that were already being made between the text of the play and Oberlin’s political culture. She also noted the role the cast played in bringing another dimension of realism and authenticity to her interpretation of Wasserstein’s script.

“I wanted to have the set reflect Oberlin,” Bussard said. “Actually, the architectural model for the arches onstage … came straight from the front entryway of Baldwin [Cottage]. And this cast … really embraced these characters and ran with [them], and I think that each of them had their own personal reason for being invested in the play. This is a play where you have to have an opinion about it to want to be in it.”

In the weeks of rehearsals before the show opened, Bussard said, students at Oberlin had to grapple with many of the same issues faced by the characters in Third.

“I decided to do this show over a year ago, so I had no idea that we were going to end up having to, as a community, deal with the issue of [Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Joy Karega’s] comments,” Bussard said. “And [the play] is all about a professor whose personal opinion impacts a student. The timing was very spooky, in that way. I think — opinions on Professor Karega aside — you have to admit that there were people who were personally impacted by her words on this campus. There’s no getting around that. Thinking about the role of a professor’s personal views in their academics — where so many people are motivated by their personal beliefs and passions — and how that translates into a classroom and impacts students is very interesting to me.”

“Oberlin sometimes has an elitist attitude towards education,” said College first-year Alexa Myles, who played Professor Nancy Gordon. “I have trouble in classes sometimes because I’m afraid of judgment, but I feel that education shouldn’t viewed that way. People should be more accepting of people’s different backgrounds and more understanding, especially about social justice issues. It should be about educating that person and coming at them from a point of understanding rather than judgment.”

McKinney said the play challenges the audience to recognize the humanity of all of the characters presented, whether or not they agree with where the characters are coming from.

“People are not always what they appear to be,” he said. “Everyone has their own story that only they know. It’s easy to see someone and talk to someone and have an opinion … without knowing what their whole situation is. Everyone in the play, to a certain extent, has that aspect to them. I think that’s probably what the play is all about.”