Scholar, niece of ‘Fences’ playwright sends letter to Charlotte school after student contract terminated

August Wilson's niece talks 'Fences' controversy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - After a controversial assignment gained national attention last month, the niece of the playwright also shared her concerns.

Faith Fox told WBTV in December that her 14-year-old son, Jamel Van Rensalier, had his enrollment contract terminated from Providence Dady School in Charlotte after she raised concerns about his class reading August Wilson’s “Fences.”

Some of the concerns included the use of the N-word in the play and the lack of diversity in her son’s classroom. Dr. Kimberly Ellis, scholar and niece of August Wilson, says she understands why Fox had concerns.

“In this particular context, where he was one of two black children in the classroom, with that introduction, with that teacher, I can see the N-word being used as a weapon against him, even as it is read in the play Fences. And that is why I oppose the use in this context,” Ellis said.

In our first interview, Jamel Van Rensaliler talked about the awkward moments in class.

“When we used to read different literature in class, all the students used to stare at me, even students who weren’t actually black and they just had brown skin, if you weren’t white you were getting looked at, simple as that,” he said last month.

In a six-page letter to the school, Ellis further addressed concerns, citing the need of historical context including teachings of the Negro Baseball League, and an inclusive curriculum on Black history before the play is introduced to teenagers.

“August Wilson, he wasn’t writing for teenagers. I do think that teenagers can relate to many of them, they can relate to literally almost everything in the play, but they have to be properly contextualized,” she said. “You have to teach layers and layers of history to get Fences. You should not read Fences and then, like, let it loose. And then I think the other aspect is that August Wilson himself went to a school like Providence Day School.”

Providence Day School says Fox’s actions towards staff members led to the termination. In a statement posted last month, the school said, “terminating an enrollment contract is always the last resort...this parent continued a pattern of verbal harassment.”

The school did not answer questions related to Wednesday’s story. Ellis says she has not received a response from the school about her letter.

“I just think that this has gone too far,” Ellis added.

Ellis says whatever happened between the school and Fox should not have affected Jamel.

“Jamel should be the focus...Dr. Johnson, you know, if you are listening, Jamel, Jamel, you know, there’s nothing more important than Jamel and his future and his education,” Ellis said.

She has also offered to be a mediator to help mend the relationship.

“I advise the teachers at Providence Day, I advise Faith Fox, because I disagree with all of them, like they’re all wrong, you know, to a certain extent about this play about his usage and things like that,” she said. “But I do believe that Faith Fox is correct in her concern over the use of “Fences,” and how it was presented by this teacher, and in this context.”

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