Wednesday night's invitation-only performance was organized to celebrate diversity and arts education in Alabama, the home state of the novel's author, whose book and the movie made from it won immediate acclaim at a time when Alabama was still rigidly segregated.
Joseph Williams, a 16-year-old black student, assumed his peers from nearly all-white Mountain Brook High would immediately see his baggy clothes and make him out for a hoodlum when they began rehearsing the play.
The sophomore, who attends all-black Fairfield High Preparatory School, was one of about 60 students from the two schools who came together to perform the play from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which looks at racism through the eyes of a tenacious tomboy named Scout.
Working with teens from other backgrounds was a life-changing experience for Williams, who sings bass in Fairfield's choir.
"I had some white friends before, but they have the same style as me," he said during a break in rehearsal Wednesday afternoon. "These kids, they have a different style and I felt like they were going to (say) 'He's bad news' or something like that.
"That was good to find out that I was wrong."
The 80-year-old Lee was invited as a special guest to be honored by education and arts officials.
After the performance, Al Head, executive director of the Alabama State Council of the Arts presented Lee with a piece of pottery titled "Unity Vessel," by Alabama artist Larry Allen.
Lee held the piece up toward the cast and crew, who stood behind her onstage, and waved to the audience, which gave her a standing ovation. Lee did not address the crowd, but later talked to students at a private reception.
The author, who rarely speaks publicly but does occasionally meet with students, has not published a book besides 1960's "Mockingbird."
The students began working on the project — the brainchild of Mountain Brook theater director Pat Yates and Fairfield Prep choir director Patsy Howze — last August. Since then they've performed it several times, receiving wide media coverage.
"I'm not sure if this is really our last performance," said Alex Trulock of Mountain Brook, who played Scout's friend Dill. "We've had two 'last performances' already. But that's OK. We want to do more."
Ron Gilbert, policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a coalition that represents the poor, said the project highlights the fact that many communities remain economically segregated.
The two public schools near Birmingham are only about 16 miles apart. But Mountain Brook is one of the state's wealthiest communities, with a median home price of about $300,000, while the same figure in Fairfield is about $68,000.
Mountain Brook High draws from an overwhelmingly white suburb, while Fairfield students are from a mostly black district.
The performance has helped the students transcend not only the 30-minute distance between their communities, but a cultural divide as well. Teens who were strangers this time last year are spending hours on the phone, sending each other multiple text messages per day and chatting on the Internet networking site Facebook.
The Montgomery performance was in Troy University's Davis Theater, directly across the street from the bus stop where civil-rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man 51 years ago.
The symbolism of the location was not lost on Regan Stevens, a 17-year-old Mountain Brook senior who plays Scout, the book's main character in the fictional Southern town of Maycomb, Ala., during the Depression.
Scout recounts how her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, fought in vain to save a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
"I hate to say life's not fair," Stevens said backstage after lamenting the play's sad, but realistic ending. "But it's just that things are not always where they need to be. The great thing about Harper Lee's novel is that it helps us address that because it shows us the problem areas that we need to work on and that's what the civil rights movement thankfully did."
Participants are hoping that exposure from the play will help lead to changes on Fairfield's campus, which has no auditorium or theatre.
Kimberly Agee, who plays Calpurnia, the white family's black maid, was already planning to major in child development in college, but has now added a minor in theater to those plans.
"She's the text-messaging queen," said 18-year-old Glenn Halcomb of Mountain Brook, pointing at Agee. "She really keeps everyone together."
"I've got to!" Agee said, smiling. "These right here," she said, with an arm slung around Stevens, "these are friends for life."
By Desiree Hunter
By Desiree Hunter