High School Cancels Production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" Due to Use of Racial Slurs

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One of the more iconic literary works, dealing with race relations in 20th Century America will not be performed in Keene, NY. The small community's Keene Central School, just north of Albany, decided against performing Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel due to its use of a racial slur. 

While usually these types of decisions are handed down by school administrations, it was the Director of the production, who opted against performing the piece, because the students felt uncomfortable saying the "n-word". 

Director and English teacher, Harry Fine, thought about editing the text but realized that too, would be problematic. He stated to local news

"It was very simply a matter of an issue of a copyright,” Fine said. “My colleague and I have been talking about doing this play for some time, but the use of the n-word in the play was disconcerting.” 

There are two schools of thought when it comes to issues like these in high school theatre. Either you use moments and texts like these to start a dialogue about race relations in this country or you can do what Keene High School has done and avoid the discussion entirely by not doing the show. I can see merit and criticism for doing either. 

But the context here is that the Keene, NY area might need conversations like these to take place, especially after what happened at nearby SUNY Plattsburgh just a couple months ago. 

 A student holds up a picture of a Snapchat message sent by Maria Gates. Photo: Zach Hirsch

A student holds up a picture of a Snapchat message sent by Maria Gates. Photo: Zach Hirsch

This past January, Maria Gates a SUNY Plattsburgh student and Keen Central alum sent a Snapchat message that said “lynching n*****s tonight” to a group of her friends. In her defense, Ms. Gates said that the message was a part of a game with her friends to who could say the most outrageous thing that night.

Of course, the Snapchat went public, viral and the campus erupted in protest. Students marched in the streets and demanded the resignation of faculty/staff and the expulsion of Ms. Gates. None of that happened other than Ms. Gates choosing to leave the university. 

 A march across the SUNY Plattsburgh campus last month. Photo: Zach Hirsch

A march across the SUNY Plattsburgh campus last month. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Mr. Fine stated that Ms. Gates' message did not play a factor into his decision to cancel the production. However, what I will say is that if someone from your community uses slurs like this so freely and in such a manner, maybe it's the perfect time to stage a piece like this. 

While I've seen the play, I don't know how many times the word is said but there is nothing gratuitous with the usage of the slur. Every time it's used, it's used in a hateful way that can be jarring to an audience. The fact that it is jarring, it's a good thing. No one should be comfortable or unaffected by hearing such language. It can become an incredibly teachable moment, especially in the rehearsal process and even post-show talk backs if the school had done that. 

I don't for one moment think that Keene, NY has a race issue. However, this would be a great proactive way to prevent one in the future by allowing students to talk about these issues in an educational setting. But if Harry Fine and Keen Central School want to avoid such topics, that's up to them.