‘The Exchange: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later’ documents 1960s Black and white student exchange – read an interview with director Joanne Williams
February 5, 2024 Leave a Comment
Explore the hidden history behind an exchange of Black and white high school students in Wisconsin that happened in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1966, a group of white students from Kaukauna visited Rufus King High School in Milwaukee to join Black students in a production of “In White America,” Martin Duberman’s groundbreaking play about the Black experience and quest for racial equity in America.
In turn, the Rufus King students visited Kaukauna, a small town located in northeast Wisconsin, to perform the play. During the exchange, students lived in each others’ homes, attended each others’ schools and formed enduring friendships.
Fifty years later, members of the 1966 exchange between Kaukauna and Milwaukee reunited to reflect on their experience and meet with a new generation of students as they prepared to perform Duberman’s updated drama at Rufus King High School.
The Exchange: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later is the story of that groundbreaking performance a half century ago and its revival. The documentary premieres 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19 on PBS Wisconsin and is available now online at pbswisconsin.org and on the free PBS App.
Joanne Williams is the producer, writer and director of The Exchange: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later. She is a former journalist with WTMJ-TV and WITI-TV in Milwaukee, and former host of Milwaukee PBS’ Black Nouveau.
PBS Wisconsin: You had this story in the back of your mind since the exchange happened. What made it feel like the right time to create this film?
Joanne Williams: I was cleaning out my garage one day in 2016, and I came across a copy of my high school newspaper. It was the only copy that I had kept, and it was the one that said, “King and Kaukauna.” It told about the kids coming as exchange students, and I saw the date was 1966 and I realized it had been 50 years since this exchange happened. It was in the back of my mind and the back of my garage for 50 years, and I thought, “This is the time to tell it.”
PBS Wisconsin: Where did you start?
Williams: I had to find these students 50 years later, and it took me several years to find them. There were 13 exchange students. I found eight. I was able to interview five, and I was able to interview the parents of two of them who were in their 90s when I did the interviews. The hardest part with that was to find these kids – I call them kids because they’re kids to me, and I’m the same age that they are now. Once I found them, it was a matter of getting them together so I could talk to them about their experience. They were all willing to talk about it, which was kind of surprising. We did, and we talked about it. I shot all my interviews in two days.
PBS Wisconsin: What was the experience like for you to revisit your high school years?
Williams: I wasn’t one of the exchange students, but I found out in doing research about the exchange students that I had been more involved than I remembered. [One of the mothers] said, “Oh, yes, we went to a party at your house.” I said, “You did?” She said, “Yes, your parents held a party.” I thought back on it, and I didn’t quite remember it, but there are three black-and-white still pictures in the film, polaroid pictures, and I’ve had those pictures for years and years, and I knew I was in one of them and I knew Ken Barroga, who is also in the film, was in one of them. But the other people in those pictures, I didn’t know who they were until I started doing the film. I recognized, that’s my living room. These are the exchange students who came to my house, so it was kind of a revelation for me that I was more involved than I realized.
PBS Wisconsin: How were you involved in the play in 1966?
Williams: I wasn’t in the play, but I sang in the chorus. The chorus was always off-stage, so I never saw the play. I just sang the songs. It brought back a lot of memories for me that I had forgotten. It was pretty emotional for me to do this film.
PBS Wisconsin: When is the first time you saw the play?
Williams: In 2016 at Rufus King High School. Fifty years later. We were shooting for the documentary, that’s the first time I saw the play. I read the play. I got a copy of the script, so I read the whole play a couple of times, but I had never seen it performed.
PBS Wisconsin: That is an interesting aspect of this documentary – viewers don’t see the entire play.
Williams: There’s one thing about the play. It is available. I got it from the public library in 2016, and when I checked it out of the public library, the last time it had been checked out was 1974. Nobody had checked it out since then, but maybe now with the film, people will want to read the play and see the play. It’s a tough play, it’s very difficult – not so much difficult to do, but what they talk about in the play is the real thing because these are the words of the real people who Martin Duberman put in the play. It’s a documentary play.
PBS Wisconsin: Why did Rufus King High School decide to stage the play again?
Williams: They did the play again because I was making the film. I went to the principal’s office in doing my research, and we were trying to look up addresses of these students who had gone to Rufus King 50 years earlier. You can imagine how successful that was, looking it up in the files of the high school. In doing that, she called the theater teacher in, and she told her about the play. This is what I was doing and it dealt with this play they had done in 1966, and she said, “I don’t have a play for the fall. Let me look at this one.” She did, and she said, “I’m going to do it.” I said, “Yes! Yes! Do it!”
Fifty years later when they decided to stage the play, there were objections to it. The theater teacher heard from some of her colleagues that they didn’t know if they wanted to be involved in this play, but she did it anyway.
PBS Wisconsin: What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Williams: I didn’t realize how complicated it is to make a documentary film. That was the most challenging for me. Getting the crew, raising the money, doing the locations, setting up schedules, all that was really challenging, but when I started doing the film and started shooting, I realized I couldn’t stop making this film. It was time to make this film, so that’s why I kept on going.
PBS Wisconsin: What do you hope to accomplish with it?
Williams: I set out first to tell the story of the exchange and then to frame it so people would be able to think about what their high school experiences were like. I wanted people who saw it to be able to turn to the person next to them and say, “Was that anything like what you experienced in high school? This is what I experienced in high school. Did you know anybody who was different from you in high school? Did you have any relationships with them?” I wanted the film to spark these kind of civil conversations about what they had learned when they were teenagers and what they’re teaching their teenagers now.