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Tread lightly when putting white kids in Klan robes for a play

The original snap.

The original snap.

The spring play at New Prague High School, The Foreigner, which was scheduled to be performed this weekend, has been abruptly canceled after a student shared a snap of actors in KKK robes.

The screencapped image spread rapidly online, accompanied by a caption the student added via Snapchat: “I think you’re gonna want to come to the spring play…”

Shared across the internet, the image garnered hashtags like #racism and #blm (Black Lives Matter). Among those sharing the pic were New Prague students who argued that their peers were making light of a deadly hate group.

“As we reviewed the social media post and conducted meetings with our theater director and concerned community members, we feel it is in the best interest of New Prague Area Schools to not present the show this weekend,” wrote the school’s principal and assistant principal in an email to students and parents, later quoted by the Star Tribune.

The name of the specific student who took the photo is not being disclosed, but the email states that the student was “involved with the play,” which was presumably in rehearsal when the pic was snapped.

The mere presence of Klan characters in The Foreigner shouldn’t be a surprise. Written by Larry Shue, the play is a 1984 comedy that’s been widely produced. It’s about a visitor to a Georgia fishing lodge who, in a plot contrivance, pretends he can’t speak English. The Klan are summoned by the local property inspector, a racist xenophobe who sees the foreign visitor as a threat.

Believe it or not, this is all played for laughs. When produced by professionals — or, at least, adults — the play has often won warm responses. Reviewing a 2009 production, the New York Times’ Aileen Jacobson called The Foreigner “basically a sentimental, often hilarious farce, full of loopy jokes with a gentle lesson about tolerance and friendship slipped in unobtrusively.”

That sounds suitable for high schoolers, right? That Klan scene, though. Here’s how the scene looked when performed by teenagers in Sweeny, Texas in 2015.

That production also sparked controversy, according to an African-American blogger who went to check it out. His reaction? The show is a satire, “not some full blown racist play” — but the appearance of fully robed Klansmen added “no value whatsoever.” He also noted, as is evident from the video, that the production generated “very little” laughter.

It’s not uncommon for high schools to stage The Foreigner, described as “a good-natured farce promoting a lesson in tolerance” (Billings, Montana) and a “thoughtful comedy” (Port Townsend, Washington). “Many comedies are inappropriate for high school students to be performing,” said the director of a production in upstate New York, “but this one we felt worked really well for a high school audience.”

Spend enough time Googling high school productions of The Foreigner, and you’ll notice a trend: They tend to happen in predominantly white, often rural settings. It’s a pattern that the Minnesota production, 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis, was to follow. Data provided to KARE 11 indicate the New Prague High School population is 96-percent white. Since the play’s “foreigner” is an Englishman who’s typically played by a white actor, The Foreigner allows white communities to wag their fingers at the Klan without directly confronting white-on-black violence.

However well-intentioned it may be to stage a play mocking bigotry, the understandable reaction to the viral snap underlines just how serious a matter it is to put students onstage in white hoods, for any reason. “It’s one thing to teach kids,” New Prague student Hong-Nyahok Kang wrote in a Facebook post. “It’s another thing to dress up and act.”

As a result, New Prague students have been given a learning experience that they didn’t expect — but that might just be the one they need.