Dramatists Guild and National Coalition Against Censorship Respond to Mockingbird Controversy

By Thomas Peter
15 Nov 2010

The Dramatists Guild of America and National Coalition Against Censorship have teamed up to protest the recent cancellation of a Florida high school's To Kill a Mockingbird production.



Ralph Sevush, the Guild's executive director of business affairs, and Svetlana Mintcheva, the Coalition's director of programs, sent a letter to Janet Valentine, the superintendent of the board of Flagler County Public Schools, urging that the Flagler Palm Coast High School in Palm Coast, FL, allow the production to go on after a planned Nov. 12 opening was stopped due to the script's use of the "N" word and concerns, as mentioned in the Guild/Coalition letter, that a "highly charged debate" would arise from it.

To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the Harper Lee novel, confronts issues of racism in its depiction of a white Southern lawyer's defense of a black man wrongly accused of rape in Depression-era Alabama.

The letter reads, in part, "The novel on which the play is based is itself taught in Flagler County High School English classes without controversy, and, reportedly, Flagler students have performed parts of it previously in other contexts. There are clearly no doubts as to the value of the work both as a piece of fiction and as a means to introduce students to the history of race relations in the United States.

"If placing students in the midst of a 'highly charged debate' was indeed the school principal’s concern, it is now clear that the cancellation of To Kill a Mockingbird has placed them in a far worse controversy. Whereas going ahead with the production would have created a teachable moment by asking how art can deal with the darker sides of history, now the issue is whether we need censorship to 'protect' the community from the painful truths of history. In comparison, a high school production of the same play in Ohio is proceeding smoothly in spite of some objections to the language. Administrators and parents there managed to reach common ground and create a productive teachable moment out of potential controversy.

"To Kill a Mockingbird provides a more eloquent condemnation of racism and racial slurs than most parents can offer their children. A play like To Kill a Mockingbird helps a younger generation understand the brutalities of racism and the hatred that accumulates in words. Indeed, we cringe at the use of the 'n-word' today – as well we should – precisely because we are aware of its history and of the degradation and tragedy racism has caused. 'Protecting' children – or anyone else – from history will only keep them ignorant. As Atticus Finch says in the novel, 'There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.'"

The letter goes on to say, "Presenting the material of the novel in a dramatic context provides students with an engaging, educational experience. By studying and portraying characters, students learn to explore and embody perspectives and life experiences outside of their own. For an audience, productions of this nature can make the material more potent and vivid. At its best, theatre deeply moves audiences to think about the complexities of human experience.

"It is true that some of the material addressed in the play may be especially resonant and even painful to some viewers. But this is not an unusual consideration in theatrical productions, and is normally addressed by a disclaimer in the playbill, a sign at the box office, or an announcement at the production warning viewers of the sensitive nature of the material. Anyone who does not wish to confront the material does not have to see the show."

A post-performance talk-back is suggested in the letter "so the audience can ask questions and perhaps hear from experts on free speech, theatre, history, and literature."

As Playbill.com previously reported, the school's principal, Jacob Oliva, cancelled the production after complaints began in the third week of rehearsals in early November.