I took my daughter to see To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend. Unsurprisingly, it was a sold out house. Also unsurprisingly, most of the audience was white. I mean, this is still Montgomery, Alabama. Although the majority of the population is black, the majority of the money is white. Still, the first N-bomb, dropped by a little kid, struck me with a visceral force, and the thousand year old woman sitting in front of me flinched as well, so I know I wasn’t alone.
A brief summary for readers who haven’t read the book since high school. Spoiler alert: although there are slight differences from the text, the gist is the same. Scout is a little girl coming of age in Alabama. When her father, Atticus, defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, Scout and her brother Jem bear the brunt of the county’s disgust. (“What’s rape?” was just the first of the real jaw dropping lines assigned to twelve year old Abbie Salter, playing the role of Scout.) The children speculate on the trial, the accusations, and the doings of their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. Atticus clearly proves that the white woman was never raped by Tom Robinson, but was, in fact, beaten severely by her father, Bob Ewell.
The jury still convicts the accused, essentially for being black. The town, though, knows his innocence and treats the woman and her father, already outcasts, even worse than before. In a fury, Bob Ewell plots against Atticus and ultimately attacks Scout and Jem. At the last second, Boo Radley saves the children, but he stabs Ewell.
So many things stand out in this performance. From the skill of the children playing the lead roles to the handling of racism by the actors, everything was superb. Perhaps the play’s most intense act is the courtroom scene, which is structured in such a way that the audience becomes the jury. They even have a member of the audience hand in the guilty verdict, so that we share in the guilt of a false decision.
When Boo Radley rescues the children, Atticus, incapable of comprehending that he stabbed Ewell, instead insists Jem must have done it. He insists that his name must be cleared for the obvious self defense. The sheriff, Heck Tate, who realizes it was Radley, explains pointedly that Bob Ewell fell on his knife. When the actor playing Heck Tate delivered that line, “Bob Ewell … fell on his knife,” it was spoken so perfectly with such clarity that the audience erupted into applause, and I was the first person clapping.
It didn’t matter that we all knew that was how it happened. It didn’t matter that most of these people had not only read the book but also visited Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville on school trips. We were all guilty of convicting Tom Robinson just then, and Heck Tate had delivered us from our own evil.
Although its reality is far from the ideals of its teachers, one of the few, perhaps the only, area where Alabama leads the nation is in Civil Rights education. While other states teach the key names and events, Alabama schools pull in the rank and file individuals who made up the majority of the movement’s success. These people, who are the students’ neighbors and friends, educate by speaking the simple truth.
So the power of this play in this state cannot be overestimated. In a question and answer period following the performance, the actor playing Tom Robinson said it was impossible to truly prepare to sit on the witness stand and in the courtroom listening to fellow actors spew racist venom. Rather, he focused on performing his own role and doing it justice and on the importance of the play’s message.
Stories like Tom Sawyer drop racist language into casual conversation, as would have been appropriate in the era in which they are set. However, Lee uses that language carefully. This adaptation captured perfectly her choice of words. There was not one racist term used accidentally. Every one had meaning and power. And that deliberateness both contributed to the audience’s ultimate culpability in Tom Robinson’s conviction and served as a reminder of how necessary and relevant the laws instated in the 1950s and 60s remain today.