Racism is the curse of American history and slavery was America’s original sin. Abraham Lincoln warned that expiating the sin of slavery might demand that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Seven score and 11 years later, #BlackLivesMatter is a hashtag adopted as the banner of a political movement motivated by the continued shedding of such blood.
The plot of To Kill a Mockingbird will be familiar to anyone who has read the book or seen the 1962 movie that closely follows the book, and the 1990 play closely follows as well. In the small, rural, Southern (fictional) town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, white attorney Atticus Finch (Stephen Thorne) is appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (David Samuel), accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Alexis Green). Atticus’ young daughter Jean Louise “Scout” (Angela Brazil) and slightly older son Jeremy “Jem” (Jude Sandy), along with their friend Charles Barker “Dill” Harris (Mauro Hantman), as children struggle to understand what is happening around them as they wonder about their unusual neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley (Sinan Eczacibasi). The black community, including the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia (Mia Ellis) and Reverend Sykes (Samuel), try to assist Tom. Miss Maudie Atkinson (Rachael Warren) and Miss Stephanie Crawford (Rebecca Gibel) serve as opposing halves of a Greek chorus, providing background on the town and its residents. Mrs. Dubose (Ashley Mitchell) is an elderly neighbor woman who is very opinionated and very racist. Walter Cunningham (Will Turner) is a desperately poor legal client of Atticus who participates in a vigilante gang. Eventually there is a trial with Judge Taylor (Eczacibasi) and prosecutor Mr. Gilmer (Turner) where testimony is taken from Sheriff Heck Tate (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), Mayella’s father Bob Ewell (Sullivan), Mayella herself, and finally Tom in his own defense.
There is a strong division of opinion about To Kill a Mockingbird, which in the 56 years since the original novel was published in 1960 has become what in modern marketing-speak is called a “brand.” The death of author Harper Lee mere weeks ago at age 89 gives an unexpected poignancy to it. For good or ill, the novel has become a cultural touchstone, required reading in most American schools and quite often the only book about race that students will ever read. The work is by no means beyond criticism: The story is simplistic, the characters have no moral shades of gray, and – above all – it is about race from a white perspective. To their enormous credit, Trinity Rep made innovative and daring choices to address all of these literary defects.
Firstly, Mockingbird is being staged in juxtaposition with Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin, one of the great black writers of the 20th century. Although commercial realities dictate that Blues will only be performed three times during the run of Mockingbird, every effort should be made to see both if possible, considering them as a set of two that preferably is not to be broken up. Trinity Artistic Director Curt Columbus is unambiguous about his reasoning: “…Mockingbird tells the story of race in America from a protected, culturally white point of view. And that is why we are producing Blues for Mister Charlie as a companion piece.”
Secondly, before the play proper begins, some of the actors address the audience as themselves out of character, recounting what director Brian McEleny describes as “a moment in their lives when they moved from innocence to experience,” mirroring the transition from childhood toward adulthood by the narrator, Scout, forced by the events of the play. These brief personal stories are moving, often confessional, self-critical and told with a tone of unmistakable regret.
Thirdly, in a play whose central theme is race, Trinity casts several key white characters to be played by black actors, opening up the drama in shocking and surprising ways. This is a radical approach, driving home to the audience that a color-blind society may be impossible. Jude Sandy as “Jem” is easy to accept because the character is still a child, and after a few seconds one forgets that he and Angela Brazil as “Scout” are actors of different races playing a brother and sister. Ashley Mitchell as “Mrs. Dubose,” on the other hand, is a constant reminder of incongruity as the narrow-minded character, played by someone who is non-white, expresses naked racism. However, the unconventional casting makes it thoroughly unnerving to watch Alexis Green as “Mayella” testify in court in the most ignorant and cruel racist terms about her interaction with Tom: although the scene is brief, Green provides one of the most remarkable, effective and electrifying performances I’ve ever seen on a stage.
Trinity exceeds expectations by developing a genuinely new perspective on familiar material, demonstrating continuing relevance and adding valuable perspective with radical casting and taking the actors out of character to challenge the comfort level of the audience. Among a uniformly excellent cast, Brazil as “Scout,” Thorne as “Atticus” and Sandy as “Jem” are outstanding. In addition to Green as “Mayella,” notable performances in supporting roles include Warren as “Miss Maudie,” Samuel as “Tom,” and, in one of the shortest but most distinctive appearances of any character, Eczacibasi as “Boo.”
In a talkback session after the performance that was attended by about half the cast, Samuel raised the question of whether art or politics could more profoundly change society, and he decisively chose art. The unambiguous moral clarity and simplicity of To Kill a Mockingbird may be evidence that, if politics is the art of the possible, then art is the politics of the impossible.
To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Brian McEleny, Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St, PVD. Telephone: 401-351-4242; Website: trinityrep.com
Wed (3/16, 3/30) 2:00pm, (3/9, 3/23, 3/30) 7:30pm; Thu (3/10, 3/24, 3/31) 7:30pm; Fri (3/11, 3/25) 7:30pm; Sat (3/19, 3.26, 4/2) 2:00pm, (3/12, 3/19, 3/26, 4/2) 7:30pm; Sun (3/13, 3/20, 4/3) 2:00pm, (3/13, 3/20, 4/3) 7:30pm. About 2.5 hours including 15-minute intermission. Handicap accessible.