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'The Exchange: In White America' performed by students 50 years apart, still spreads the same message

Posted at 7:47 PM, May 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 20:47:34-04

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — It's been 50 years, and for Joanne Williams, it was time to tell the story that she wants everyone to hear.

“This is a piece of hidden history in Wisconsin,” said Williams.

It's a piece of history, a story that goes back to 1966, and an exchange program within Wisconsin where students performed the play "In White America". Williams describes it in the first half of her documentary 'The Exchange: In White America: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later'.

"In the cast, the white parts would be played by white kids, but the African American parts would be African American kids," said Linda Plutchak, a former Kaukauna High School student, and one of the original members of the exchange.

The kids from Kaukauna were paired with students at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. The combined cast from both schools would put on the play, perform it for each school, and also stay with host families. Plutchak was paired with a young woman named Phyllis Lawhorn.

“Her family was like my family," said Plutchak. "The kids had the same rules, you know, they followed the same schedule as we did. So, it was just very comfortable that way. “

This experience hit Plutchak hard, and she reflects on it often.

“One of the things that I remember the most is that we had so much fun… also that it totally changed my perspective,” said Plutchak, also noting the frustrating points, she calls it.

“I could not believe how so many of the teachers behaved, and I thought it was so unfair, whereas Phyllis was like 'Linda, that’s just the way it is'.“

50 years later, the play got a revival, and Williams was there to film it for the second half of her documentary.

“It's filled with Senate testimony, civil rights leaders... it's diary entries, conversations between enslaved people, and their masters," said Williams. "All these things that actually happened. So, the play is real.”

The current students at Rufus King took the play head-on and were invited back to Kaukauna to perform. Members from the original exchange came out to support and had themselves a reunion. Half a century later, the same message still has a big impact.

“A play like this, a documentary like this will force those kinds of questions, like how are we still dealing with these kinds of issues? 50 years later?" said Dr. Robert Smith, the Harry G. John Professor of History at Marquette University, who served as a historian for the movie. "How is it that these students from, really, worlds apart, were able to come to some understanding of their shared humanity?”

Williams calls this project her third child.

“Knowing that we would be able to tell this story was personally emotional for me," said Williams. "Because it was such a long journey to find these people and to get this done.”

Worlds that seem so separate, but are really so similar.