Overruling a decision by the schools’ superintendent, the Waterbury, Conn Board of Education allowed a high-school production of August Wilson’s play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, to go on. Superintendent David L. Snead had opposed the production, saying that the school and educators should not be staging a play that might encourage use of the word “nigger.” The play will open in February and will be framed by pre-show discussions and post-performance talkbacks putting it in a historical context.
The incident comes soon after a similar controversy regarding a play based on Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: a Florida high school canceled a high school production of the play, but the decision was subsequently reversed. As we said in that case:
The reason “nigger” is a word that carries such painful weight, of course, is due to a history of racism, to which books like To Kill a Mockingbird testify. That history is evoked every time the word is used, even today. But history will not be erased even if we delete the word from every play, novel or historical document about racism.
A play like To Kill a Mockingbird will help 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 from history will only keep them ignorant.
We have come a long way since the events described in To Kill a Mockingbird thanks to an open and often heated debate on civil rights issues, a debate made possible by our national commitment to the free circulation of ideas. It’s a lesson that we forget at our peril.
Similarly, Joe Turner is a play about African-American history: The play was inspired by the blues song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” recorded by legendary blues artist W. C. Handy and first sung by many estranged black women who had lost their husbands, fathers, and sons to Joe Turner—a plantation owner who illegally enslaved blacks in the early twentieth century. Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the play examines African Americans’ search for cultural identity following the repression of American slavery. For Herald Loomis, this search involves the physical migration from the South to Pittsburgh in an attempt to find his wife. Herald’s search for his identity, represented as his song, is unsuccessful until he has embraced the pain of both his own past and the past of his ancestors and moved on to self-sufficiency. This is a lesson somehow missed by those who want to overcome the pain of history by erasing it.