This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman. Check out the rest right here.
This is a story all about how our high school production of TKAM got shut right down.
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird as a freshman in high school. I was in Mrs. White’s freshman honor’s class, and I remember her enthusiasm for the book and for the character of Scout rubbing off on me. I liked the book when I read it, but it took her guiding us through our reading of it before I fell in love with it. And I fell hard. I reread the book every summer, and every time, I imagined Mrs. White standing behind her podium, reading Scout’s lines to us. Scout’s voice, in my head, will always have Mrs. White’s particular southern drawl.
Senior year, I had Mrs. White as a teacher again. This time, she was teaching drama. She didn’t let that keep her away from her favorite book, though. When it came time to choose the script for that year’s mainstage play, she gravitated toward something familiar. She chose an adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Everyone in our school had read the book freshman year, and many of them had done so in Mrs. White’s classroom. As a result, we all had a similar perspective on the novel. We had learned the same lessons about race and class, though I’ve come to realize that we had not yet internalized them.
It was rare to find a student at our school who didn’t place TKAM high on their list of favorite reads, or, at least, favorite books that they had been required to read. When we heard that this was to be the play for the year, we were pretty happy. We had a familiarity with the story, and we knew that it was an important story to tell. We began to think that by bringing it to life on the stage we were doing something important, too. We continued to think that as we did our initial read through in class and throughout the audition and casting process. We thought it when we started rehearsals after school, since that was the only time that the entire cast could be there.
I should stop here and tell you that I am from East Tennessee. I went to a county school. My graduating class had just over 300 people in it. Most of those people were white. In fact, most of the students in the school were white. The number of students who were anything other than white was very low. The number of black students was lower than that. Mrs. White had gone and sought out several of those students and asked them to be a part of the play, and they happily agreed. None of those students were in our drama class that year, so we moved rehearsals out of the classroom and spent that time working on things like set and costume design.
Someone – I was told it was a parent – started asking about the script. She assumed that we would be sanitizing the play that way that we usually did – pulling out the curse words and sexual references. This concern seemed odd to us when we heard about it because there were none of those things in the script. I don’t know if she went to Mrs. White first and wasn’t satisfied with her answer or if she took her concerns to the administration and they were the ones who came to Mrs. White. In fact, I don’t know a lot about the discussion at all. I wasn’t supposed to. I was a student. Since then, I’ve been a teacher and I’ve had those discussions, so I can imagine what it was like.
I do know that what it boiled down to is that we intended to produce the play with as little alteration to the script as possible. That meant that we wouldn’t be changing the language, because to change the language, we felt, was to take away from the important lessons we had learned and hoped to teach others about race and class. That meant that we’d be standing on stage, in our version of 1936 Maycomb, Alabama, using the same language they would have, the same language that appeared in the novel. That included the n-word. And, in her view, that wasn’t okay.
Before I go any further, I want to be clear – this is not a defense of the n-word. That is a word that I grew up hearing, but that I was taught not to say. I don’t even feel comfortable writing it out. But if my character was meant to say it, then it would have come out of my mouth on stage. When I was a teacher, reading a passage to my students, I said it then, too. Otherwise, it’s on the (short and well-curated) words I will never, ever say list.
One afternoon, when we should have been rehearsing, we were asked to take a seat center stage. Mrs. White explained to us that the administration had requested that we change the script so that we avoided all usage of the n-word on stage. She felt very strongly that the change should not be made because doing so would defeat the point of doing the play in the first place. But she ultimately left the decision with us. The options were to change the play or to pick a new one. We, the students, were excited by the prospect of doing a play with such an important message and taking that word out because people were uncomfortable with it would, we thought, undermine that message.
We didn’t give in right away. We came up with arguments for its inclusion. We asked the black students if they had an problem with it. One admitted that it would probably be weird during those first rehearsals, but that they’d be used to it by the time opening night rolled around. They had read the book. They knew the story. Someone else pointed out that there was a difference between seeing the word on paper and hearing it out loud. I think that point gave us pause, but we, as a cast, were still united. We felt they (the administration and the concerned parent) were failing to consider the context in which the word would be used.
Rumor had it that the NAACP (who were on campus for an unrelated matter that I was never clear on) was (albeit informally) on our side, that they thought we shouldn’t make the change. The lesson to be learned would only be strengthened by maintaining the integrity of the story and the time and place that it depicts. That’s the consensus we came to, and I agree with it today. We decided it was better to drop the play than to do anything that would lessen its impact.
We didn’t feel that way about every play. The show we put up in its place was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We took out the cursing, toned down the sexual innuendos, and we didn’t think twice about it. It’s a double-standard, I know. We were kids in high school. We considered the fact that we got to do something as edgy as Cuckoo’s Nest to be a major victory after having to give up on a play that had meant so much, and we tried our best to have fun with it.
I said before that the we had not yet internalized the lessons we had learned from our first reading of the novels. Before this experience, I had not realized that racism was something that people still dealt with. I believed that because Lee was writing about the past that those feelings, the hurt and confusion and distrust, no longer existed or, if they did, it was on such a small scale that it was no longer a problem. I thought that because I had learned the lesson that everyone had, that books and plays and movies were just a means of reinforcing the lesson so that we didn’t forget. I learned then, and have learned many, many times since that day, that racism is alive and well. The lesson still needs to be learned and books like To Kill a Mockingbird play an important part in making sure it gets taught.