Racial slur in ‘To Kill a Mock­ing­bird’ causes stir at Shore­wood High.

Sup­port­ers, op­po­nents not di­vided by race

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - An­nysa John­son

When Shore­wood High School chose “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” as this year’s an­nual fall play, it seemed a rel­e­vant com­men­tary on the times.

Based on the Harper Lee clas­sic about a white south­ern lawyer de­fend­ing an in­no­cent black man in the 1930s, it is a story about seg­re­ga­tion and racism, a bro­ken crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and the sac­ri­fices of those who would stand up for what is right.

But Lee’s book, which has been banned by many schools across the coun­try, re­mains as con­tro­ver­sial to­day as it did when she wrote it. On Thurs­day, just hours be­fore the cur­tain was to go up, Shore­wood can­celed the pro­duc­tion in re­sponse to a planned protest over the use of the ‘N’ word in some scenes.

News of a protest had cir­cu­lated on so­cial me­dia early in the day. And by mid-af­ter­noon, Su­per­in­ten­dent Bryan Davis pulled the plug, say­ing the dis­trict should have done a bet­ter job en­gag­ing the com­mu­nity “about the sen­si­tiv­ity of this per­for­mance.”

“We’ve con­cluded that the safest op­tion is to can­cel the play,” Davis said in a state­ment.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials met Fri­day hop­ing to re­solve the is­sue.

“Though we had hoped to an­nounce to­day how we plan to move for­ward, a de­ci­sion of this mag­ni­tude re­quires a very thought­ful ap­proach. The work con­tin­ues as we try to find a vi­able so­lu­tion and we will pro­vide an up­date in the com­ing days,” school board pres­i­dent Paru Shah said in a state­ment sent to Shore­wood fam­i­lies Fri­day night.

The de­ci­sion has an­gered and dis­ap­pointed stu­dents and par­ents on both sides of the de­bate.

“That was never our re­quest. We asked for the word to be omit­ted,” said Pa­tience Phillips, the mother of three African-Amer­i­can stu­dents in­volved in the protest.

“I un­der­stand that the chil­dren put a lot of work into this play,” she said. “This doesn’t cre­ate di­a­logue. It causes more of a di­vi­sion.”

Stacy Synold had two chil­dren in the play, both of whose char­ac­ters ut­ter the slur. She called the pro­duc­tion one of the “most poignant” she’d seen and said the school’s de­ci­sion to use the slur sparked im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions with her chil­dren.

“This is a great loss to the com­mu­nity,” she said of the can­cel­la­tion. “This play is a warn­ing of what hap­pens if we

“That was never our re­quest. We asked for the word to be omit­ted. I un­der­stand that the chil­dren put a lot of work into this play. This doesn’t cre­ate di­a­logue. It causes more of a di­vi­sion.” Pa­tience Phillips, the mother of three African-Amer­i­can stu­dents in­volved in the protest

Cen­sor­ing the word “will not ed­u­cate (peo­ple) about the atroc­i­ties from which it was born. It’s ugly and raw. It’s my hope that the ad­min­is­tra­tion and fac­ulty of­fered proper ex­pla­na­tion and his­tor­i­cal rel­e­vance.” An­other mother, via Face­book post

don’t change our ways. And it’s a mes­sage of hope — that young peo­ple might be the rea­son things change.

“Art is a way for us to deal with these is­sues. And now we can’t. We’ve lost that op­por­tu­nity.”

Shore­wood Drama has never shied away from con­tro­ver­sial pro­duc­tions. It has staged “Spring Awak­en­ing,” “Urine Town,” “Rent” and oth­ers that pushed bound­aries. But this pro­duc­tion comes amid a rag­ing na­tional de­bate over a word con­sid­ered, as The Wash­ing­ton Post put it, per­haps “the most di­vi­sive in the English lan­guage.”

Shore­wood of­fi­cials rec­og­nized this po­ten­tial land mine and at­tempted to brace par­ents and stu­dents from the be­gin­ning. When the cast was first se­lected, they is­sued a state­ment say­ing it would use the word out of “fi­delity to the pro­duc­tion,” but stressed that they do not con­done the use of the word in any other con­text.

“The fact that our so­ci­ety still strug­gles to truly em­brace racial equal­ity sym­bol­izes that our work is not yet done and that Harper Lee’s Mock­ing­bird is as rel­e­vant in 2018 as it was in 1960,” they said.

To pre­pare the broader stu­dent body, English classes read the book and dis­cussed the lan­guage and themes of the play.

And in early Oc­to­ber, Drama Di­rec­tor Joe King sent an email to par­ents of chil­dren whose char­ac­ters were to ut­ter the word, en­cour­ag­ing them to talk to their chil­dren about their feel­ings of dis­com­fort.

“It’s go­ing to be quite a chal­lenge for your stu­dents and the stu­dent body to say and hear this word,” said King. “But we are con­fi­dent that ... we are go­ing to get this pow­er­ful story told ... and told sen­si­tively and beau­ti­fully.”

The de­bate did not cut cleanly across racial lines. About 30 stu­dents, black and white alike, ob­jected to the use of the ‘N’ word. Like­wise, African-Amer­i­can par­ents with chil­dren in the play sup­ported its use in that con­text.

Cen­sor­ing the word “will not ed­u­cate (peo­ple) about the atroc­i­ties from which it was born,” one mother said on a Face­book post. “It’s ugly and raw,” she said. “It’s my hope that the ad­min­is­tra­tion and fac­ulty of­fered proper ex­pla­na­tion and his­tor­i­cal rel­e­vance.”

Se­nior Grace Dre­sang, who was re­quired to say the word as the gos­sipy Miss Stephanie, said there was con­sid­er­able dis­cus­sion among the cast and in classes, but per­haps not enough in the broader com­mu­nity.

“What’s most dis­ap­point­ing to me is the fact that this is a show about racial ac­cep­tance and the fact that seg­re­ga­tion and racism are not OK. And I don’t think that theme was re­ally well-un­der­stood by the com­mu­nity around us.”

Phillips, who ob­jected to the use of the word, said the play would have had the same im­pact without us­ing the word.

“I don’t think any­one would have gone home up­set be­cause they didn’t get to hear the n-word,” she said. “You can still get the point across.”

Davis, the su­per­in­ten­dent, said in his state­ment that the dis­trict would “con­tinue to en­cour­age staff and stu­dents to en­gage in mean­ing­ful per­for­mances sur­round­ing con­tem­po­rary is­sues with the ap­pro­pri­ate amount of out­reach and di­a­logue.”

It is not the first time Shore­wood, a pre­dom­i­nantly white dis­trict, has strug­gled with is­sues around race. In 2016, Davis apol­o­gized to five stu­dents and their teacher af­ter paint­ing over a mu­ral they cre­ated to “spark a con­ver­sa­tion” about racial inequal­ity at the school.

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