by Ella Hurwitz & Alex Zakuta, News Reporters
photo courtesy of the Newton North theater department
In October, Parents Defending Education (PDE), a national right-wing nonprofit, filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education against Newton North High School. The Oct. 4 complaint, available on their website, targeted the annual production “Lost and Found: Stories of People of Color by People of Color” performed by North students.
PDE claimed that the production violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal funding.
Despite the complaint, North students are currently rehearsing for this year’s production, which will run from Jan. 19-22.
Last year, PDE sued Wellesley High School for hosting a discussion forum for Asian students regarding a hate-motivated shooting at a massage parlor in Atlanta. The organization claims that there have been 43 incidents when Massachusetts schools taught about race, gender or sexual orientation in an illegal manner.
PDE did not respond to interview requests. Their website states that they are dedicated to fighting indoctrination in the classroom by removing politics from public education. Claiming to be grassroots and locally engaged, leaders of PDE have made frequent appearances on the national right-wing networks Fox News and Newsmax and have pushed back against pro-LGBTQ policies.
According to their website, PDE “believe[s] our children’s education should be based on scholarship and facts, and should nurture their development into the happy, resilient, free-thinking, educated citizens every democracy needs. Our classrooms should include rigorous instruction in history, civics, literature, math, the sciences and the ideas and values that enrich our country.”
The organization’s complaint claimed that the theater department’s application for auditions, which requests a headshot and for students to identify themselves racially and ethnically, is discriminatory.
“The performance description does not assert that participation in this performance is open to all,” their website said. “Accordingly, we ask that the Department [of Education] promptly investigate the allegations in this complaint, act swiftly to remedy unlawful policies and practices and order appropriate relief.”
South theater department head Jeff Knoedler said that “Lost and Found” was organized to allow students to discuss and share their experiences with others.
“The intention of the production was to give a safe space to students of color where they can talk about racism and other things that are affecting them,” he said.
North junior class vice president Zonna Okonkwo said that “Lost and Found” offers opportunities for numerous forms of creative expression.
“The show is a cabaret for students of color,” she said. “They can sing, dance or even give a poem or a monologue.”
For North senior Asa Karon, who co-designed last year’s production, the show gives students a chance to explore and express their identity in new creative ways.
“It’s interesting because lots of times it isn’t just theater. It’s some theater, some music, some art pieces that people made that they put up outside,” she said. “There’s musical numbers that people wrote or performed. Some of them were reading poems.”
While a goal of the production is to project the voices of people of color within the North community, North Principal Henry Turner said that no students were prohibited from auditioning.
“A performance that shares the stories of students of color is certainly important and in line with the values of our school, but no one was prevented from trying out. It wasn’t limited to certain groups,” he said.
Okonkwo said that the production’s intention is not to discriminate, but rather to provide historically marginalized people the opportunity to share their voices.
“The point of the show isn’t to exclude White students. The point of the show is to create a safe space for POC students,” she said. “There are so many other opportunities that [White students] can participate in because they’re White and won’t be excluded for their race.”
South sophomore Sonia Milsten-Ockene said that although theater should be a place for everyone, prioritizing minority groups ensures that everyone has the opportunity to get involved.
“Everyone should be allowed to do theater but, sometimes minority groups should be given the chance to have more of an experience in theater than they might have otherwise,” she said.
South sophomore Asher Navinsky, who is a member of South Stage, said that the benefits of theater extend beyond performers to the audience as well.
“The great thing about theater is it can educate you through story so everyone can get involved with it in some way,” he said. “You can just purely follow the story or you can use it as a way to teach something.”
The show will perform this winter for its third year, and Turner said the annual production has become an ongoing source of joy and education at North.
“The students who created the idea and the students who have participated before have certainly had a way of lifting our spirits,” he said. “This is a great new tradition for our school.”