Flap at school confounds actor

Flap at school confounds actor

Wisconsin State Journal By: Susan Lampert Smith

March 22, 1998

Waterloo-Jinx Davis always has believed in making herself vulnerable to her audiences.  Audiences at the Mode Theater troop through the family kitchen to hang their coats in her bedroom, sit on her bed during intermission and eat cheesecake “because when someone comes into your home, you give them something to eat.”  But last week’s controversy at McFarland High School has made her art a little too personal.

Within the span of a few minutes Friday afternoon, the Mode Theater telephone rang with yet another harassing phone call—Davis says she and her family have had more than 20 since Wednesday and have discussed the matter with the police.  Meanwhile, downstairs, a supporter rang the doorbell and delivered a bouquet of flowers.  “I’ve always said there was no line between me and my art,” she says, “Now what?”

The tempest erupted after Davis, 47, performed during what was billed “Diversity Day” at McFarland High School.  Her character, which she says she has used to great effect at other schools, is a roughly dressed person, perhaps mentally ill, perhaps homeless, who works the audience trying to get someone to touch her and treat her kindly.  Instead, Davis says, the students cursed her and refused to cooperate.

“The idea is to put a mirror up to us and show us how we interact with people who are not like us,” she says. “What the students at McFarland revealed is that they cannot deal with human kindness on any level.”

Davis says she unknowingly stepped into a hostile audience after rumors swept the school about her performance being gay.  She said she erred by making a remark to a hostile student that included a cruel reference to a jock strap, but she believes that the audience was just waiting for an excuse to attack her.  “I was prey, I was their sacrificial lamb,” she says.

So what does Davis—a believer in the transforming power of art—want to do next?  She says she would like to return to McFarland to conduct another work about Wednesday’s disaster.  Davis says it would combine teaching with stagecraft.

“Act Three is resolution,” says the actress who demands that her audiences participate in the work.  “That’s when the frayed ends are pulled together and you find a way to hold hands, if only for a oment.”

But McFarland principal Jim Hickey sounds like he’d just as soon skip Act Three.  Hickey has been besieged with phone calls from parents, some of whom heard wildly exaggerated rumors of what happened Wednesday.  “With the level of emotion and controversy, I don’t think it would be our students’ best interests,” he says, adding that he has learned a lesson from the performance—tell parents and students in advance what a performance will be about.

As for Davis, her art will help her heal from this week’s events, which have clearly shaken her.  Last night she opened a play, “Illuminated Darkness,” about the lives of Helen Keller, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

“Helen will help me deal with this because she was in this situation all her life,” says Davis.  After weeks of immersing herself in the writings of Helen Keller, she’s learned that Keller faced hostility from people who sought to prove that she was a hoax.  Davis says she has been moved by Keller’s writings on civil rights, and the fact the she, a blind and deaf woman, went out on tour after the death of her beloved teacher.  “She went out into the world on her own; they said she couldn’t do it without Annie,” Davis says.  “It was a big risk, but she brought a lot of healing.”

Which is what Davis would like to do in McFarland, if she ever got a second chance.

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