Context is everything.
If you ask the average parent whether, in the abstract, they want to hear a student, any student, saying the n-word from the stage of their local high school auditorium, the answer (hopefully) would be no. Put that word in its full context in the musical Ragtime, or in the plays of August Wilson, and those familiar with the works may feel differently.
Ask parents whether they’d like to hear students say words like “ass” and “skanky” from a school stage, and odds are they wouldn’t be keen on it. But put it in the context of the significantly edited school edition of Avenue Q, which is vastly less transgressive than the original, and it’s not quite so jarring, since its language is heard in network television comedies regularly.
So when a photo of students dressed as Ku Klux Klan members began circulating on social media in the New Prague High School community in New Prague, Minnesota, with the message “I think you’re gonna want to come to the spring play,” there was understandable concern and outrage.
The image was from a dress rehearsal of Larry Shue’s mid-80s comedy The Foreigner, and the Klansmen appear briefly in sheets and hoods at the climax of the show as a threat to the shy title character, after the racist behavior of the Klan and their like have been clearly made out as ugly and malignant in the show. The Foreigner is hardly a social justice piece and it does use the Klan for humor, but it in no way endorses their real-life behavior.
Because this took place just a week before the performances, New Prague High School decided to quell the furor by shutting down the production entirely on Monday, three days after the post went up and just days before the performance dates. The school’s e-mail read as follows:
Dear Parents and Students,
We are sending this communication to notify you that our spring play, The Foreigner, has been cancelled. On Friday afternoon, a NPHS student involved in the play posted a captioned photo on social media of some fellow cast members in KKK costumes that are used in the final scene of the play to depict an evil force in the story. Administration was made aware of the posting, and the insensitive nature of this post.
As we reviewed the social media post and conducted meetings with our theatre director and concerned community members, we feel it is in the best interest of New Prague Area Schools to not present the show this weekend.
This situation will also allow us the opportunity to have conversations with our students, staff and community as we continue to work at embracing a culture of acceptance and respect for all students within New Prague Area Schools.
Lonnie Seifert, Principal
Tom Wetschka, Assistant Principal
Principal Seifert further elaborated in a conversation with Minnesota Public Radio:
Is it disappointing? Yes, I’m disappointed for the kids that invested so much time in the play and performing. But I think we also need to look at the big picture of our students and I’m disappointed some of our students had to go through the feelings that they went through seeing that (social media) post.
As Paul Walsh reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, there are only twelve black students at New Prague High School, in a student body of 1300 (he didn’t include data about other students of color). But regardless of the number of black students or all students of color at New Prague, a social media image of Klansmen and a mention of the school play created a fraught situation, presumably unknowingly on the part of the student who shared the photo. The school’s desire to send the message that it did not support either the Klan or clueless depictions of the Klan on its stage, with the clock ticking towards performances, was swift action with a commendable goal at heart, namely to send an anti-racist, anti-Klan message.
The question remains as to whether they made the right decision, since they shut down the show rather than trying to immediately grapple with the issues it raised. As acknowledged earlier, The Foreigner is not a nuanced depiction of racism and violence, but rather a light comedy bordering on farce, written with a sensibility that’s now 30 years old; past productions have engendered comments about the use of the Klan as comic foils, as well as concerns about its portrayal of a character with an intellectual disability. The show was last seen in a major New York production in 2004 at the Roundabout Theatre Company, with Matthew Broderick in the title role, but it is a staple of school and community theatre.
In a report on WCCO-TV, a CBS affiliate, Ben Thietje, the school’s drama teacher and director said that the cancelation “was a unanimous decision made by school administration and myself. The play has a positive message of acceptance and celebration of differences. However, if it also causes stress to a portion of our student body, the point of performing it has been lost. The well-being of our students is the main concern. I take full responsibility in not doing a better job of communicating this message with students from the beginning.”
But could the school have scrapped some lesson plans this week to focus on the insidious, vicious history of the Klan and explored how the play does or doesn’t represent that well? It would have taken a concerted effort, with committed faculty and administrators calling on outside experts to swarm and address the issue. It could have been managed if everyone committed very quickly.
Unlike Ragtime in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where the school had six weeks to prepare students for the racial slurs that would be uttered onstage, New Prague was certainly under pressure. Unfortunately, in alleviating the concerns provoked by the photo, the school negated the work done by the students in the show and sent the message that cancelation, censorship, is the best response when the arts are challenged, even with legitimate concerns.
There are works of theatre, both comic and dramatic, that when picked apart, can often reveal some element that might prove objectionable in the abstract, shorn of its context within the work. There can also be objections when older shows are blithely presented simply as the “entertaining” school play, without educational and social context. It’s for others to decide whether The Foreigner remains a funny farce for today’s sensibilities, or whether it has aged into a work that reflects a less aware time in an unflattering mirror.
No matter whether a piece of school theatre is overtly speaking to political and social issues or merely touches upon them casually, it’s essential that educators take a good look at what they’re producing, how it speaks to students today – rather than how it spoke to audiences when it was first written, or even a decade ago – and create the appropriate context for that work, above and beyond just producing it to the best of their and their students’ abilities. This shouldn’t be construed as making the case for safe work, but rather for insuring that school productions aren’t islands unto themselves, for making them part of a comprehensive approach that grounds all school theatre in multiple contexts: as theatre, as literature and as a valuable part of the broader educational process not only for those involved in the production, but for the school community at large.
Note: Before this piece was written, Arts Integrity sent e-mails requesting interviews with New Prague principal Lonnie Seifert and Assistant Principal Tom Wetschka, and also left voice mail for Seifert. No response was received by the time this piece was posted, but updates will be made, as appropriate, should they respond. The school district office said there was no communications officer for the district and that all questions should be directed to Seifert and Wetschka.