An upcoming run of performances of a classic Agatha Christie play at Kingston High School has stoked controversy, both for the story’s origins and for a billboard on the school’s Broadway campus which depicted a noose, long a symbol of racism.
School officials removed the billboard on Monday, Nov. 28 after concerns from parents and members of the community were brought forth, but the issue was far from over. That same evening, the Hudson Valley chapter of Citizen Action of New York held a public discussion, with many of the speakers on the night expressing outrage over what school officials have said was an unfortunate oversight.
And Then There Were None is based on Agatha Christie’s 1943 stage adaptation of her own novel, which was published four years earlier. The controversy began almost immediately, as the book was published in the United Kingdom as Ten Little Niggers after a British blackface version of the children’s rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” The U.S. edition of the book, published in December 1939, was instead called And Then There Were None.
While the book and play don’t tackle issues of race directly, the nursery rhyme features in the story as it appears on the wall of each of the guests on a mysterious island. Both the book and play were altered for publication and performance in the U.S., with the rhyme reverting back to its original Ten Little Indians title. In the U.K., the play opened in 1943 with the epithet-containing title, and the setting in that production also contained the slur. The history of the story, along with the image of the noose in front of the high school and on flyers which circulated through the community, put some local residents on edge.
“The big issue in Kingston is the imagery, the noose on the banner,” said Callie Jayne, lead community organizer for the Hudson Valley chapter of Citizen Action and also a Kingston parent. “The fact, like we said, that children are walking past this. The fact that somebody thought that this was OK, and we need to get to the bottom of who and why and how we can prevent that … We need to demand an apology. A real apology.”
Jayne led Monday night’s discussion at 7 Grand St., in the shadow of Kingston High. Around 20 people turned up to both talk and listen, including a teacher, Luz Christina Ramirez-Mooney, and a school psychologist, Cat Coleman. The meeting was also streamed live on Facebook.
“Whenever my students feel threatened, I can’t sit down,” said Ramirez-Mooney.
Coleman, a psychologist at Kingston High, said she was interested in understanding why the imagery might be troubling for people. “I felt concerned about members of the community that I care about who are feeling offended and not heard,” she said. “When I learned more about it, I really kind of understood as best I could not being a person of color.”
Kortnee Simmons, regional advisory board chair for Citizen Action, said he had relatives in the district and community and was concerned about the message the billboard was sending with an image of a noose and the title of the play, And Then There Were None.
“They have to walk past that billboard every day and go to school,” he said. “It bothers me to the core that you wouldn’t think that something like this is wrong in an area that’s heavily populated with African-American and Latino children. And you feel that it’s OK.”
The district responds
After removing the billboard on Monday, the school district released a statement on its website. Initially unattributed, the statement has since been amended as coming from Superintendent Paul Padalino.
“Although the original title contains a slang word that is today an inflammatory racial epithet, race relations are not a theme in the play,” reads the statement. “The play is a classic murder mystery that relies on a closed circle of suspects to build dramatic tension … The play was chosen based on the quality of the content, and its dramatic merits. No racial epithets are used in the play.”
The statement said that the billboard was removed following phone calls and e-mails from members of the community, adding that the imagery was derived from prior productions of the play.
“The image of the noose was derived from the Samuel French playbill, an international publisher and licensor of plays and musicals for the stage,” read the statement. “This is a highly offensive symbol, and we regret its use in the promotion of this play. Moving forward, we hope this event can be used as a teachable moment for students, staff and community and an opportunity for conversations about cultural sensitivity in our diverse school district.”
Some of those in attendance at the Citizen Action discussion felt the statement didn’t go far enough, with some also expressing skepticism about the motives behind using a noose in advertising the play.
“That act demonstrates a lack of sensitivity, and I don’t know if that’s due to their unawareness; I find that hard to believe,” said Imogene Simmons-Kelly, who added that the district’s statement felt hollow.
“It doesn’t speak to my blackness, it doesn’t speak to my humanness,” she said. “It doesn’t speak to any of those little black kids in that school.”
On Tuesday, Padalino said the district was working with the community to track down any flyers and ads relating to the play that might also feature the image of the noose. He added that he’d met with community leaders to discuss the issue, and while the notion of trying to stop the play from going forward was broached at the Citizen Action meeting, it hadn’t as of yet been brought up with the superintendent.
“No one I spoke to was saying ‘Stop the play,’” he said. “They were saying, ‘First of all, let’s get rid of the symbol. And second of all, let’s learn from this.’ And that’s the point, I think, more than anything.”
More forethought in the future
The Citizen Action discussion resulted in a series of goals, including some the group hoped could be resolved in the short term. A public apology from the district, elected officials and the mayor was one of the goals, as was the notion of a discussion or skit on the matter to take place prior to each of the three public performances of the play.
“This play has a history, and we need to talk about the history,” said Jayne on Monday night. “And we need to talk about what went wrong when presenting this … Maybe the demand is next year you need to do a play about racism.”
As of Tuesday, Padalino said he hadn’t discussed the goals with Citizen Action, but he said the program given out at each performance would touch on the issue.
“We’re working on a message of unity to put in the program to say we understand what happened, we learned from it, and we’re going to move forward and do better,” he said, adding that some of the goals formed during the community discussion aligned with the district’s continued focus on the social and emotional well being of the district’s students.
“Taking a second look at things before we do them and wondering how they impact other people is something that we need to start doing,” he said. “I think we do it a lot with words, but we also need to do it with symbols. I don’t think anyone had the intent to offend anyone. I think their intent was to promote the play. But you need to think a little bit, take a step back before you do things and have an understanding of other people’s feelings. This is going to kind of be inserted in those things we’re doing with our faculty and staff, and even with our students. It’s a hard way to learn a lesson, but I think we have learned a lesson.”
And Then There Were None is scheduled to take place in the recently renamed Wendell Scherer Theater at Kingston High School this weekend. The curtain will rise at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2 and Saturday, Dec. 3, with a matinee performance at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4. Tickets are $10.