Banned in Connecticut

For fear of “the n-word,” a Connecticut superintendent has banned a play by a leading black playwright, reports the New York Times. August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was selected by drama teacher Nina Smith at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School.  In addition to going through the normal channels for approval, she read the play to parents of the mostly black cast and discussed its language with the principal and with a former president of the Waterbury NAACP.

“Joe Turner,” about the big dreams and tumultuous lives of the residents of a Pittsburgh boarding house, drew critical acclaim for both its first Broadway run, in 1988, and a revival there in 2009. It is widely considered one of the best plays in Wilson’s cycle of 10 works about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century; Wilson died in 2005.

Smith “prepared a study guide for classes to talk about the play, and was organizing post-performance talkbacks so the cast and audience members could discuss the work,”  according to the Times.

“Joe Turner” was chosen for performance in February to celebrate black history month. After seven years, the magnet school has students with the maturity to do the play, Smith said. There are enough black actors to fill the roles.

Superintendent David Snead, who’s black, banned the play. However, the Waterbury school board will consider a new policy for school plays on Tuesday, according to the  Republican-American.

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Comments

  1. According to the linked article, no banning has taken place yet. The principal says the play is still going forward, and the school board will take up the matter at its next meeting.

  2. I don’t know how the n-word is used in this particular play, but my feelings are that the best way to make students understand the impact of this word is to use it in its original context. Then you see how ugly it really is and then perhaps those who use it so capriciously will have second thoughts. How do children learn from the past by white-washing it?

  3. Wow. Sometimes the shock effect is not the best idea when trying to get your point across. I’m not sure the “N” word is really needed.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Yes but there is a huge problem with all of this…if a white used the n-word heaven forbid but blacks use the n-word with each other all the time. How come it is degrading from one but not from another? Why would anyone want to use the word? Some please explain…

  5. greeneyeshade says:

    tim-10-ber, aside from the historical baggage, it’s axiomatic that some language, like some humor, is meant only for the ingroup. I may have mentioned this before here, but it can’t hurt to do it again: Otto Kahn, the 1920s financier and public figure, once said, ‘A kike is what you call the Jewish gentleman who has just left the room.’ Can you imagine how that would have sounded if Kahn hadn’t been born Jewish himself? (He converted, apparently for social-climbing reasons; according to Groucho Marx, Kahn was the prototype for Roscoe W. Chandler, the arts patron in ‘Animal Crackers’ whom Chico and Harpo recognize as Abie the Fish Man from Czechoslovakia.)

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Greeneyeshade,

    The reason that things like that sound better when they come from the “in group” is that it gives us a coarse-grained clue as to the user’s intent. We suspect that a black person saying “Damn, nigger, you’ve got problems!” isn’t harboring some deep-seated racial animus towards black people, and doesn’t think of black people as less than human. Indeed, it seems presumptively ridiculous to make such an accusation. But it’s only presumptive — and it’s a rebuttable presumption, because what matters is the intent behind the words.

    If I’m discussing objectively the use of the word and I say “The word nigger has been used for hundreds of years…” it seems pretty clear that I’m not harboring racial animus, and I’m not thinking of black people as anything less than human. What I’m doing is discussing a word. Likewise, if I’m reading, say, Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, one might think that there’s a presumption that what I’m interested in is repeating an author’s use of language, not in employing that language myself to nefarious ends.

    Now some people might not be willing to grant that presumption of good faith. Some people might think that any use of the word by a non-Black is itself an act of racial animus, even if they’re just reading Toni Morrison or Mark Twain (whose use of the word is employed to an even more virtuous end). Those people might be offended by non-Blacks performing in Joe Turner’s play.

    Those people are idiots, as is anyone who gives their semi-superstitious views of language any credence whatsoever (though it does not make you an idiot to merely discuss said views without endorsement, just as it does not make you a racist to employ the word “nigger” for neutral or objectively virtuous ends).

    All that said, sometimes one might think discretion is the better part of valor, that the benighted deserve our pity, and that it is best not to poke the moron.

  7. One of my treasured possession is an early draft of Wilson’s Seven Guitars.

    He’d be horrified.

    And to think so many of his plays were first staged in non-profit theater world of Connecticut. Irony.

  8. greeneyeshade says:

    Quite right, Michael Lopez, but what if the moron insists on poking you?

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    As it doesn’t say in the Psalms:

    “If a moron poketh you, thou shouldst squash it and put it out of thine misery, but with clean and righteous heart, knowing that thy work is a work of mercy and truly the Lord’s will.”

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