A Minnesota high school's performance of the comedy The Foreigner was abruptly cancelled after a photo of student actors dressed in Ku Klux Klan costumes began circulating on social media.
In the leaked photo, students at the New Prague High School in New Prague, MN, were photographed wearing white robes and hoods as part of a dress rehearsal for the performance. The photo was shared among the NPHS community on social media with the caption, “I think you’re gonna want to come to the spring play.” Although the Klan are used in the play to depict an "evil force" and are portrayed as ignorant and bumbling, the concern and outrage around the photo, which was shared only a week before the play's opening night, prompted the administration to announce the cancellation of the performance.
The principal's message announcing the cancellation said the message behind the play, one of acceptance and the celebration of differences, was lost in the whirlwind of controversy around the photo. He concluded it was therefore in the "best interest" of the school to "not present the show this weekend." On local radio the principal elaborated, saying the decision was made with the feelings of the students who saw the leaked photo in mind. The principal said he had met with students and adults who had expressed their offence shortly after the photo began spreading.
As Howard Sherman of the New School's Arts Integrity Initiative notes, the decision to cancel the play was understandable, given the fraught situation the photo controversy created and the pressure of the impending opening performance. The question Sherman goes on to ask, however, is whether the controversy could have been better addressed by using the situation as a teachable moment about the issues and concerns the photo raised. For example, time could have been set aside in the week prior to the first performance for lessons about the racist elements of American history followed by discussions about the play's portrayal of the Klan, in order to alleviate concerns about the message it was sending.
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.
By choosing to simply cancel the play the school also prevents any educational opportunities that could have arisen from it, while also ensuring the hard work the students had put into the performance goes to waste.
NCAC is looking into the situation to offer help as we see fit. If you are a New Prague student or anyone connected with the controversy please get in touch! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.