Keene kills production of ‘Mockingbird’

Students didn’t want to use racial slur, but publisher wouldn’t allow script change

Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

(Editor’s note: This article contains language some may find offensive.)

KEENE — Keene Central School canceled its production of Christopher Sergel’s dramatic adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” due to a racial slur in the text.

Director and Keene Central English teacher Harry Fine said it was because the script contains the word “nigger,” and the students felt uncomfortable saying it; however, the publisher insists that copyright law keeps them from changing the text.

“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.”

Fine said he figured he could just change the wording but soon found out it would be illegal.

Abbie Wolff plays Scout Finch and Bob Pettee plays her father Atticus Finch in Pendragon Theatre’s production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which it toured all over the North Country in 2011 and 2012. (Photo provided)

The play’s publisher, Dramatic Publishing, directed the Enterprise to a list of guidelines that deals with copyright laws in the theater. If a person or a theater group violates a federal copyright law, they can face anywhere from a $500 to $100,000 fine.

For nearly half a century, students throughout the U.S. have been reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in school, even if it does keep popping up various banned book lists. Lee’s book follows Scout Finch, a little white girl growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. As she and her brother Jem do normal kid stuff like play outside and spy on the mysterious neighbor who never leaves his house, their lawyer father Atticus takes on a case defending a black man named Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman.

This was all during the time of Jim Crow laws, and the people of Maycomb soon shun and gossip about the Finches. One of Scout’s relatives, Francis, even calls Atticus a “nigger-lover” and says he ruined the family name.

Even after Atticus proves Tom is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, Tom is still sent to jail. He tries to escape by climbing over a prison fence and is shot a gratuitous 17 times.

At a young age, Scout witnesses the injustices of the American legal system and unadulterated racism in her hometown. She also sees the nobility of her father, sacrificing his social stature to defend an innocent man.

Fine said he understands the importance of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and why Harper Lee chose to use strong language, but he also doesn’t want to force his students to do anything that would make them uncomfortable.

“Our students would not have been comfortable,” he said. “As much as it is part of the lexicon of American literature, our stage was not going to be that place.”

If it was performed in a more professional setting, Fine said he’d be all right with the racial slur.

Bonnie Brewer, a local theater veteran who just finished directing Saranac Lake High School’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” said it’s possible to contact publishing companies and ask for rewrites, but with a play like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” they’re not going to budge. She said Dramatic Publishing was in the right for not wanting the script changed and that the school missed out on a learning experience.

“The word is integral to the play,” she said. “It’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. If you take it out, you lose all the impact.”

“Annie Get Your Gun” is definitely a lighthearted play when compared to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but it does feature some out-of-date language when referring to women and Native Americans. SLHS went with the 1999 revival version of the play that scrapped the song “I’m an Indian, Too,” and before every show, Brewer would introduce the play with a disclaimer, saying it was written in a time much different than nowadays.

In 2011, Saranac Lake’s Pendragon Theatre performed “To Kill a Mockingbird” at various theaters and schools throughout the North Country. Abbie Wolff, who played Scout back then as well as Annie in “Annie Get Your Gun” this month, said it’s understandable to feel uncomfortable about certain words and topics, but people should accept it and learn from history. Ignoring Lee’s topics of racism and rape does a disservice to progress, she said.

“People are so terrified to be labeled a racist,” she said, “but if you’re reading the book or acting it out, it’s not your own words. It’s the words of racist people from the South, so it’s pretty naive to put blame on the performers or the audience members.”

Referencing another famous piece of literature often taught in high schools, Wolff said, “If we give words so much power that it takes [away] works of art and literature, that’s a very dangerous place to be. It’s like ‘1984’ George Orwell stuff.”

The Keene community is highly sensitive to racism these days due to a separate recent occurrence in Plattsburgh.

Maria Gates, a Keene Central alumna who was a freshman attending SUNY Plattsburgh, sent a Snapchat message that said “lynching niggers tonight” to a group of her friends. She said later that she and her friends were joking around to see who could say the most outrageous thing, and that she deeply regrets her actions. Nevertheless, a member of that group went public with the message, and consequences ensued.

Hundreds of students marched in the street, demanding an equal and safe learning environment. On-campus groups requested multiple members of the SUNY Plattsburgh faculty and administration resign, and those offended called for Gates’s expulsion.

She was never expelled, but she left the school shortly afterward. Keene has held multiple community meetings on the subject since then.

Fine said canceling the Keene play has nothing to do with Gates, and he and his students always planned to not use the word in its full form.