CLEARWATER — Before he purchased tickets to see the play To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Nelson had one question.
"Will the original language be used?" he asked the folks in the box office at Francis Wilson Playhouse.
Curtains open tonight for the two-act play, which runs Thursdays through Sundays until Feb. 27.
After being assured that the words remained in their original form, the former language arts teacher and school principal plunked down money for three seats.
"I probably wouldn't have bought (the tickets) if they had sanitized the language," said Nelson, a 65-year-old black man who said he has experienced a fair amount of discrimination, including being denied service at food counters in his younger years.
Nelson is referring to Harper Lee's use of vernacular in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, which reflects the Depression-era dialect spoken in the Deep South.
Consequently, the Southern Gothic novel and the play, adapted by Christopher Sergel, are peppered with what are considered today to be abhorrent racial epithets for black people.
"People need to know how deeply racism ran," Nelson said. "When you take the language away from the characters, you lose the impact. (Audiences) should feel uncomfortable about some things in order to think about them."
At first, director Nonie White said she considered toning down the language — at least some of it.
"When I got the script, I read it through to see if I should take some of those words out, but every time they are used, there is a reason. It shows the ugliness of the time," she said. "The words are too important to the reality, racism and class structure of 1935. It is part of our history."
White said this play may be the first Mockingbird to nest in the area.
"To our knowledge, the play has never been performed in Pinellas County," she said. "It's such a fine piece of work, it should be done more often. We're proud to bring it to our audiences."
And as luck would have it, it's being performed during Black History Month.
For the uninitiated, the 1935 storyline revolves around the character Atticus Finch (played by Jim Wicker), an Alabama lawyer who defends Tom Robinson (James Cordero), a crippled black man wrongfully accused of raping a young white woman.
The audience serves as his jury.
Along the way, Finch's daughter Scout (Kristen Powell), son Jem (Lucas Pasquier), and their buddy Dill (Thomas Rowell) learn some of life's hardest lessons.
To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck. It won three Oscars.
A half-century after it was written, Mockingbird (along with novels like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) are the subjects of much controversy concerning their use of the N-word.
White believes the beloved tale deserves to be told — in its original form.
"Part of its forcefulness is the lessons learned by children about racism and social class," she said. "Audiences will leave with the feeling that we've come a long way."