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'We've had two 'last performances' already,' said Alex Trulock, who plays Dill.
AP Photo by Kevin Glackmeyer
"We've had two 'last performances' already," said Alex Trulock, who plays Dill.

Students bridge gap in 'Mockingbird' drama

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — 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.

The sophomore, who attends all-black Fairfield High Preparatory School, was joining about 60 students from the two schools as they began rehearsing a collaborative stage performance of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "To Kill a Mockingbird," which looks at racial injustice from the eyes of a tenacious tomboy named Scout.

But working with teens from other backgrounds, in a project enjoying an invitation-only performance Wednesday night, has been 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."

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

The 80-year-old Lee, who rarely makes public appearances, was invited as a special guest to be honored by education and arts officials.

The students began working on the project — the brainchild of Mountain Brook threatre director Pat Yates and Fairfield Prep choir director Patsy Howze — last August. Since then they've performed it several times and were featured on NBC's TODAY show.

"I'm not sure if this is really our last performance," said Alex Trulock of Mountain Brook, who plays the part of Scout's friend Dill. "We've had two 'last performances' already, but that's OK. We want to do more."

Howze and Yates said they never dreamed their brainstorm would produce such a whirlwind of activity and hope it will inspire other groups to come together as well.

Ron Gilbert, policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a coalition that represents the poor, said the project brings to light the fact that many communities remain economically segregated.

The two public schools near Birmingham are only about 16 miles apart. But Mountain Brook is one of the state's wealthiest communities, with a median home price of about $300,000, while the same figure in Fairfield is about $68,000. Mountain Brook High draws from an overwhelmingly white suburb, while Fairfield students are from a mostly black district.

"I think the primary thing is a reflection of housing patterns that we still do tend to have," Gilbert said.

"Schools generally serve a defined geographical area and as long as things stay that way, we're going to see schools that are primarily white and primarily black."

But the performance has helped the students transcend not only the 30-minute distance between the communities, but a cultural divide as well. Now teens who were strangers this time last year are spending hours on the phone, sending each other multiple text messages per day and chatting on the Internet networking site Facebook.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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