The actors and crew will be a part of this community’s first-ever staged production of Mockingbird, which is one of the most-read and most-loved books in American history.
Ranging in age from 11 to 80-something, the actors come from Texas, Mississippi, New Orleans, Illinois, and all parts in between. Some are black, some are white, and some are bi-racial. One is a sixth grader and another is a Rhodes Scholar.
They have come together as a family of sorts. They have become an ensemble that can tackle the difficult issues of racism, sexism, and class differences. They know each other so well — and trust each other so much — that they are capable of using language we’ve tried for generations to purge from our lexicon.
As the play’s director, I’ve watched them struggle and overcome obvious obstacles. And I’m proud that when a particularly nasty, mean-spirited scene ends, the actors remain good friends.
“Well, of course,” you say, “they’re only acting.”
Yes, but imagine being a 19-year-old black man sitting on stage as a dozen white people call you “nigger” in scene after scene, rehearsal after rehearsal, night after night.
Recreating this part of our not-so-distant past has been a difficult and remarkable achievement.
Mockingbird has long been described as one of the great children’s books of all-time. Yet its themes are hardly the stuff of childhood. Scholars have debated and published widely on the book’s themes and characters, and part of author Harper Lee’s genius is that no two people love the book for precisely the same reasons.
For many young men, Atticus Finch is an ideal role model. Indeed, ask a dozen lawyers today what motivated them to pursue a career in law, and I’ll bet you half will reference Atticus Finch or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Young girls are attracted to Scout’s rare combination of innocence and courage. Others feel empathy for Mayella Ewell’s sad existence and pain for the abuse she suffers at the hand of her father.
Some people are drawn to Boo Radley, the most talked-about and scarcely seen character in the book. The legend of Boo is larger than life with the kids imagining a boogey man capable of eating live squirrels and dead cats. Yet after he saves the children’s lives, Scout is inspired to say of Boo, “He’s real nice,” at the conclusion of the play.
Harper Lee throws a lot at the reader, but the real take-away message (at least for me) is the idea of seeing things from a different perspective — the notion of “walking around in another man’s skin.”
The story at first follows normal stereotypes and attitudes of 1935 Alabama. But with every event and through every character, we’re allowed to see that “different perspective.” While we know that Mayella Ewell is lying when she accuses Tom Robinson of raping her, we also see that she is a very young and desperate woman, who fears that her own father will kill her if she doesn’t tell the lie.
We see Jem and Scout’s many frustrations with everything their father, Atticus, can’t do — he isn’t sheriff, he doesn’t play football or drive a dump truck, and he won’t even teach them to shoot their air rifles. But as the story unfolds on the stage, the children begin to walk around in their father’s skin; they begin to see him for what he is rather than what he is not.
Our goal since day one of this journey has been to produce something that does more than stir nostalgic recollections from middle-aged audiences who fondly remember reading the book as a child. While we hope that our play does that, too, our real hope is that this production inspires honest and thoughtful conversation.
The book was written 50 years ago when the KKK still had a pretty active presence around here. Less than a generation ago, the Klan tried to rally at our courthouse, but our Human Right Commission countered with a successful Celebration of Diversity.
What remarkable progress we have made in this community.
How much farther can we go? Can we begin to recognize people for who they are and not what color they are, what gender they are, or how much money they make?
The secret to our success — and the wonderful theme of the play — lies in our ability to walk around in the black man’s skin, the woman’s skin, and the poor farmer’s skin. Once we do that, all of us will have learned what Scout learns by the end of To Kill a Mockingbird — that most people are real nice, once you get to know them.