Live theater, like a good novel or a movie, gives the viewer a chance to imagine, or understand, another person’s life. As Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird might say, it’s a chance to walk in another person’s shoes.
For half an hour during the Ashland Shakespeare Festival’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, I could imagine what it might have been like to be a black man in the 1930s south, or the 1960s south, or the 1980s south, or maybe the south today. It was unsettling.
The courtroom scene is the second act of the play, and it is surprising that is it suspenseful, since the verdict is a foregone conclusion. Of course I have read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. In the book, I identified with Scout, our first person narrator, an adult telling us a story about the summer she was nearly ten, and the events that year that changed her life and opened her eyes to the world. I thought the book was about injustice, which of course it is, and fear of the other, which it is. I thought it was about family and different types of courage, and it is about all that too. Marion McClinton, the African-American director of this year’s production, also sees that it is about inequality, something so rooted in the story that I almost overlooked it because I took it for granted. In that courtroom scene in the Bowmer Theater, I was not allowed to overlook it. For a few minutes, I could imagine what it would be like to be someone whose entire existence is so precarious that merely coming to the attention of the wrong white person could cost you your life. Maybe you didn’t lower your eyes quickly enough or step off the sideway fast enough—or maybe you didn’t do anything except walk by a certain house on your way to work in the fields every day.
Mayella Ewell (portrayed with heart-breaking conviction by Susannah Flood) has accused Tom Robinson, a black man, of raping her. While Mayella can be seen as a fellow victim, in a way, her father Bob Ewell is a bully, a liar, a man who brutalizes his children and has probably sexually abused his eldest daughter. The Ewells are white trash; on the stand, Bob boasts about being able to write his name “so he can sign his relief checks.” When I read the novel, I thought then that Lee was, if not exactly cheating, making it easy on herself, and on the reader, by making the Ewells so easy to dislike. They are not “like us.” They aren’t good whitefolk, they are those “others.” McClinton seized on a point I had never absorbed; the toxic, brutal system of social order inherent in oppression. Bob Ewell, who beat his nineteen-year-old daughter and will later try to kill Atticus Finch’s children, has to have someone to look down on. In Macon, Georgia, in 1935, Ewell is entitled to that. That person is Tom Robinson. The outcome of the trial is foregone, but if there had been a glimmer of hope for Tom, he extinguishes it himself when he admits, on the witness stand, that he went into Mayelle’s house because “he felt sorry for her.”
He, a black man, dared to admit in a room full of white people that he felt sorry for a white-skinned girl.
It is for this reason that Bob Ewell wants, not only Tom dead, but Atticus as well. He sees Atticus as the architect of this upheaval of social order, this attack on his privilege. It makes no difference that Tom is innocent, or that Tom is a simply a better man than Ewell. Tom Robinson, and later Atticus Finch, challenged Ewell’s privilege, and unlike middle-class, educated and white Atticus, Robinson has absolutely no protection against Ewell’s rage.
Earlier in the play, of course, Atticus and Tom are menaced by a drunken lynch-mob. Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, burst onto the scene, and Scout, who recognizes one of the men, begins talking to him about his son, who is in her grade. The men, confronted by a tiny spark of humanity within themselves, steal away, ashamed. Robinson will not be so lucky with a jury, in the temple of American justice and equality. Struck by logic, the complete lack of any evidence incriminating Robinson, and Atticus’s passionate and eloquent summation, the jury will struggle for three hours to beat down that spark of humanity and conscience within themselves, and make the decision they know is wrong, to protect a social order that keeps them on top.
Tom Robinson (Peter Macom, striking every note in his small role perfectly) knows that the outcome is a foregone conclusion, and that he is a dead man, but even then, even on the witness stand, he does not have the luxury of defiance, of telling these people what he really thinks of them, because he has a wife and children who must go on living in this town.
This is oppression. This is not a level playing field.
I’m not doing the entire play, the players or the excellent sets, justice here, but I’m writing about the moment in the play that changed my thinking, at least for a moment. McClinton took an old story, one with an iconic movie attached to it, and moved it out of the shadow of Gregory Peck. He made me think about the world differently. He made me think, for a few minutes in that mostly-white audience in Ashland, Oregon, about systems of inequality not from the outside, but from within.