'Mockingbird' School Drama Bridges Gaps

The Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 3:26 AM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- A high school play based on Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" brought together black and white high school students to tell the classic story of racial injustice _ and even drew out the novel's reclusive author.

Wednesday night's invitation-only performance was organized to celebrate diversity and arts education in Alabama, the home state of the novel's author, whose book and the movie made from it won immediate acclaim at a time when Alabama was still rigidly segregated.

Joseph Williams, a 16-year-old black student, assumed his peers from nearly all-white Mountain Brook High would immediately see his baggy clothes and make him out for a hoodlum when they begin rehearsing the play.

The sophomore, who attends all-black Fairfield High Preparatory School, was one of about 60 students from the two schools who came together to perform the play from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which looks at racism through the eyes of a tenacious tomboy named Scout.

Working with teens from other backgrounds was a life-changing experience for Williams, who sings bass in Fairfield's choir.

"I had some white friends before, but they have the same style as me," he said during a break in rehearsal Wednesday afternoon. "These kids, they have a different style and I felt like they were going to (say) 'He's bad news' or something like that.

"That was good to find out that I was wrong."

The 80-year-old Lee was invited as a special guest to be honored by education and arts officials.

After the performance, Al Head, executive director of the Alabama State Council of the Arts presented Lee with a piece of pottery titled "Unity Vessel," by Alabama artist Larry Allen.

Lee held the piece up toward the cast and crew, who stood behind her onstage, and waved to the audience, which gave a standing ovation. Lee did not address the crowd, but later talked to students at a private reception.

The author, who rarely speaks publicly but does occasionally meet with students, has not published a book besides 1960's "Mockingbird."

The students began working on the project _ the brainchild of Mountain Brook theater director Pat Yates and Fairfield Prep choir director Patsy Howze _ last August. Since then they've performed it several times, receiving wide media coverage.

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