When Angela Howard was growing up, her father was adamant that she be aware of issues in the world around her. She would often listen to him and her uncle debate politics, and she was enamored of the variety of topics they discussed.
As a child, she saw her mother reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” On a whim, she decided to pick up the novel herself, and she realized the story reinforced the values her parents were trying to instill in her.
Now, as an adult, Howard is trying to teach a new generation of children to be socially conscious through her direction of the Performing Arts in Children’s Education Youth Theater production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Set in a racist and predominately white Alabama town in the 1930s, the story is about a black man who is convicted of raping a white girl, despite evidence that proves his innocence. Told through the perspective of a 9-year-old named Scout Finch, the play explores the racial tensions that existed in America during that time in history.
Howard said that she and Deborah Baldwin, the other art director at PACE, try to choose one serious piece each year for their actors to perform. In the past, the group has acted out “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Miracle Worker.”
Howard said that while she knows some may think “To Kill a Mockingbird” addresses too difficult a subject for young children to understand, she disagrees.
“I read this when I was 10,” Howard said. “I didn’t understand everything, but I could relate to it on a child’s level. I saw the movie when I was 11, and it blew me away.”
To prepare the play’s participants for the issues they would be acting out, Howard taught them about Jim Crow laws and told them stories about the Ku Klux Klan. She further explained to them that while “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a story, that doesn’t mean the injustices occurring within it are fiction.
The neo-Nazi march that came through Columbia on Saturday was further proof, Howard said, that children need to be exposed to tolerance.
Nathan Blake, 12, who plays Scout’s friend, Dill, said he was stunned to learn that the two races used to be kept apart.
“I was amazed that some adults thought that black people and white people should be separate,” Blake said.
Howard said one major concern in having children perform the play was addressing the script’s use of racial slurs. But, she said, she did not want to alter the text to be politically correct because she felt doing so would cause the play to lose its impact and become less realistic.
Assistant Director Marie Dundon worked to teach the children and young adults what the racial slurs mean and how they were used during the time in which the play takes place. Dundon, who is black, said it was important to her that they understand why their characters were using the language.
“This is meant to teach, maybe to change the way people think,” Dundon said.
Dundon said she used examples to try and get the actors to relate to the content. Dundon explained to them that discrimination does not have to be just because of race, but that someone could be discriminated against because of money, beauty or popularity.
The cast has three black actors in the play, including April Brown, 18, who plays Calpurnia. Brown said that while it’s not always easy to digest the words being said on stage, she understands the necessity of keeping the racial slurs in the play.
“It’s hard to hear it all the time, but it’s necessary for the production,” she said, adding that using the language of the time makes the play real.
There is a line in the play where Atticus Finch, the father of main character Scout, wonders how it is that children seem to understand injustice better than adults. Even though the play is set in a time nearly 80 years ago, Howard said, the children and young adults are still living in tumultuous times. Thus, by exposing the children to the world’s difficult realities, she said she hopes that they will become more open-minded and better actors at the same time.
“You take a role and it changes you,” Howard said. “My hope is these young people will walk away different.”