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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Shorewood District Working Toward Racial Equity After Play Highlights Community's Racial Tension

Teran Powell
During the community conversation Tuesday night, facilitator Shahanna McKinney Baldon, made a note to tell attendees the event was A conversation about race, not THE conversation about race.

A whirlwind of events has surrounded Shorewood High School’s planned production of To Kill A Mockingbird. The superintendent of the Shorewood School District, Bryan Davis, addressed members of the media Wednesday afternoon to confirm that the school would part ways with the idea of putting on the show.

Following pushback for the play’s use of the n-word, it went from being a three-night event, to a one-night showing followed by a community talkback session.

Then at one point, the district settled on only having a dress rehearsal for the family of the cast and crew, but ultimately the decision was not to do it at all.

“Overall, the consensus among the students was that they felt that if they moved forward with the dress rehearsal they would lose the original message that they were to convey by performing the play and would be performing the play for the wrong reasons,” Davis said.

Credit Teran Powell
Shorewood superintendent, Bryan Davis, announces that the school's planned production of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' was canceled.

He also addressed what he says was an error on the part of those in charge.

“Our most important misstep was not beginning our community conversations with our district community about the production much sooner. I acknowledge and take responsibility for that misstep.”

The use of the n-word in the play is what caused a lot of the fuss.

Critics planned to protest if the show went on with the use of the word, while supporters claimed the play, based on the book published in 1960, would be vital to current conversations still being had about racism.

However, some people upset about the play say there’s a larger issue – of racist incidents in Shorewood and the high school itself, over the years.

So, Davis also mentioned plans going forward to address those concerns:

“Number one, providing a variety of opportunities for youth leadership around the issues of racial justice. I will be commissioning a new student equity task force. We’ll also be reinvesting in our restorative justice practices and taking throughout our district. I’ll also be sharing our professional development conversations with our community that we’ve been having for the last 3 years, so not only that our community knows what we’re doing, but also that we have the ability to gather resources and strengthen our programs as we’re moving forward.”

Long-term priorities include family engagement, conversations around racial equity in the community, and developing partnerships with experts throughout the state on racial justice issues.

Davis’ announcement came on the heels of a community conversation Tuesday night that was meant to start a conversation about racism.

The student actors from To Kill A Mockingbird said they were glad the dialog was starting.

The theatre was nearly full of district students, families, community members and state officials prepared to have a facilitated conversation. Elle Hill was just there as an observer.

"My personal opinion is like if it was more of a diverse background, then the conversation about leaving the play as is could be had, but given that it's not in this area, I think that the conversation needs to be had and that a common opinion should be reached. And that it's a way to present sensitive art material as well," Hill said.

Shorewood resident Chris McAuliffe weighed in as well.

“For me, I really want to hear what the kids have to say because I don’t think I truly understand the difficulty of using a word of a period piece. So, for me I just want to understand that better,” said McAuliffe.

Despite the desire to have a conversation, however, tensions soon boiled over as people shouted their disagreements across the room. The district even cut off the media from recording that part of the event.

Students eventually took control of the conversation saying they want to have a say in what goes on in their school because whatever happens there affects them the most.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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