“To Kill a Mockingbird” brings Classic Novel to Life
Harper Lee’s famous southern American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is being dramatically acted at Proctor’s Theatre through June 19th. The award-winning play directed by Aaron Sorkin has won rave reviews since opening its tour on April 6th with good reason: it is well acted, beautifully costumed, and the set captures Maycomb, Alabama in 1934. It also tells the heartbreaking story with some mild shifts.
The novel, one of my all-time favorites growing up, tells the story of Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in the community. Told through the lens of his children, Scout and Jem, with a moral compass in the character of Calpurnia, the play follows the story of Atticus’ loss of innocence and belief in the justice system in which he works. He defends Tom Robinson with evidence on his side, but still somehow loses the case when the jury cannot accept the black man’s empathy for the white woman who lied about him.
While that’s a great story, and one worth reading and re-visiting, I hungered for more out of this play than it delivered. After all, plays offer the opportunity to re-tell old favorite stories with modern lenses. And after the last few years, we certainly have a more woke lens about racism than we did in 1960 (when the novel first was published).
Watching this “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a few things jumped out at me that I missed in my English class in the late 1980s. I have always admired the character of Atticus Finch; his integrity, willingness to be kind, and his sense of ethics appealed to me as they stood out as exceptional examples of human behavior.
But should these really be exceptional qualities? Should this story about a white man coming to terms with the hatred and ignorance of racism in his community really be that outstanding? If you recall the novel, the Finch family had a long history of living in the south and profiting off of the land. That likely means the Finch family benefited from white privilege.
Then there is the trouble with the character of Calpurnia, a housekeeper who had lived her whole life in service of the Finch family. The director has Cal, who is described by Scout as “almost like a sister” to Atticus, quietly reflecting on her employer’s stupidity taking the risk of placing Tom Robinson on trial in their town. She asks him if he really understands their neighbors, and is angry with Atticus for his naivete. She beautifully uses sarcasm to point out Atticus’ almost childlike expectations that somehow empathy breeds respect, and the jury will deliver a not guilty verdict.
She seems to be the bravest voice in the play.
But is she?
Cal’s loss of patience with Atticus reminds me that my favorite novel completely overlooks the perspective of Tom Robinson. When Atticus’ courage is pointed out by his son as a quality he admires, I was astonished. Atticus is brave for telling Tom’s family about his death. But wasn’t Tom Robinson far kinder, far braver, and far wiser than Atticus when he had far less to gain? Didn’t he, after all, have pity on Mayella Ewell and help her out of kindness? Didn’t he face the charges with courage, speaking the truth in court about Mayella’s abuse at the hands of her father?
And couldn’t the same police officer and judge who helped Arthur Radley at the play’s quick ending also have helped Tom Robinson, but chose not to in the beginning? How are they celebrated characters when they only used their power to help someone they chose as worthy: a mentally ill white man. Cal’s honesty at the end, naming that illness, drove home the message that those we choose to save — and those we don’t — reveal our bias.
The play missed an opportunity to turn the play on itself and suggest a different ending. Instead, it continued to focus on celebrating white people trying — and still failing — to save black people from the very system that the white people created and continue to create via participation in it. And that, my friends, is not justice or worth celebrating. That’s the reality of white privilege.
I still love Atticus Finch, but through these eyes, he shouldn’t be celebrated for fighting racism. That’s a baseline expectation at this point. He spoke up at a time when it was rare; but at this point, my hope is that speaking up is just a normal expectation.
The play is wonderfully acted, however, and worth seeing for the character acting alone. The adults playing children at first felt uncomfortable, but the actors quickly fell into a rhythm of physically representing the children in believable ways. Their playfulness and movements matched the youthful innocence often represented in their dialogue. I loved watching Scout jump and skip across the stage, and especially loved her fierce desire to demonstrate how she’s beat up people she didn’t like.
The actress who played Cal, Jaqueline Williams, was a joy to watch. Her cadence of speech, wisdom and insights kept the story true to the absolute exploration of racism. She was both believable and loveable, and her toe to toe conflicts with her employer made her a formidable force. She emerged as a true hero in the story.
The costumes delighted me, especially the women’s dresses. Socioeconomic status was represented so clearly I felt I had perhaps also lived in 1934, and felt the truths about class resonating with our nation’s climate today. Seeing the difference in how Mayella dressed and carried herself from Miss Stephanie, for example, seemed to cross the decades.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” challenged racism in our social system, but I wanted it to go even further. I wanted more of Calpurnia’s views and less Atticus Finch. As she noted, when we respect some people, often that means disrespecting others. I don’t believe Harper Lee intended to disrespect black people by writing a story about a white attorney’s struggles with racism, but that is the effect it left me with in 2022. While beautifully represented, it missed opportunities to challenge the audience’s views and push theatre goers further to understand their own privilege, and to realize that while Atticus Finch is someone to identify with — his integrity, respect and kindness are simply not enough.
Re-telling the story from Tom Robinson’s point of view would have been more powerful and frankly – it was his story to tell. He even asks Atticus to please let him say his story during their first interview, and Atticus sits down to listen. Perhaps Atticus needed to stay seated longer and work more closely with Tom to help him prove his innocence. Because this story wasn’t really about Tom’s innocence as it was told, but Atticus’s.
As Cal states, “morning sure is taking its time coming” as they sing about change coming in the morning. Art can push us along. So please, go see “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And push yourself to imagine an even wilder ending: one where Boo Radley perhaps is black (and they lie to protect him nonetheless), one where Cal’s voice is the narrator, or one where perhaps Tom Robinson gets to tell his version of these events.