Theatre Memphis Reminds Us, "It's a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird."


To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis - THEATRE MEMPHIS
  • Theatre Memphis
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Theatre Memphis
Theater Memphis’ production of To Kill a Mockingbird is handsome thing, lovingly lit, and costumed. It faithfully follows the story told in Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel and director Kevin Cochran’s production team has treated it like a classic. But the cast, while fully committed, is sometimes tragically uneven. Pacing was nonexistent and on opening night tensions never built. I felt particularly bad for young actors whose honest work needed to be slowed down or amplified for clarity’s sake.

When Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s messy early draft and/or sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird was published (for better or worse) in 2015, fans were horrified to discover that Lee’s unforgettable character Atticus Finch was, in addition to being a perfect dad, first rate attorney and model citizen, was also racist and the kind of person who might attend a Klan meeting. The outrage was silly because of course he was! Even for a progressive Southern lawyer in 1935, it would be far stranger if he wasn’t. And for all of Atticus's apparent wisdom, you can see the darker biases, even in the original’s most famous passages — written, as they were, when the idea of race was still concrete, and understood to be a catalyst preceding racism, not an artificial distinction created and preserved by white supremacy.

“The truth is this: Some Negroes lie,” Atticus says. “Some Negroes are immoral. Some Negro men are not to be trusted around women—black or white.” In spite of what you might assume from these lines, he’s defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman. “This is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men,” Atticus concludes, putting forward the good Christian notion that all men are flawed while enshrining a fundamentally racist paradigm and the question it turns on: “Is this the good kind or the bad kind?”

In polarized times, To Kill a Mockingbird might appeal to a sense of nostalgia for some mythical age when men of principle argued in good faith, and even against their own nature or political ideology. A time when stand-up guys like Atticus Finch at least tried to raise their children to be better than themselves. But the applause lines in Atticus’s big address to the jury — and our proxy jury, the audience — must be understood as naive and as much a part of the white biased system as Tom Robinson's accusers. So,as good a man as Atticus may be, absent some critical perspective it’s hard to valorize his best intentions or frame his moral victory as an act of pure heroism, without also affirming and valorizing its racist architecture.

The actor cast as Atticus is Bob Arnold. He has been a generous, and under-appreciated contributor to Memphis’s performing arts scene. Before anybody had heard the word “podcast,” he was the indefatigable driving force behind Chatterbox Audio Theater, an audio performance troupe that brought area talent, and a mix of classic and original stories right into our earphones by way of digital broadcast and occasional partnerships with WKNO radio. It’s an understatement to say I’m a fan of the man and his work. That being said, I can’t say much good about this performance.

With his soothing, radio-ready baritone, Arnold narrates the role of Atticus more than he inhabits it. He brings more life to act two when the story shifts toward courtroom drama, but barely. Arnold trudges through the role with perfect diction, and loads of heart but little sense of urgency, place, or purpose.
Following on a streak of great work in shows like All Saints in the Old Colony and The Flick, John Maness doesn’t disappoint as classic yokel, Bob Ewell. Despite the character’s lack of dental hygiene and grooming, there’s not a hair out of place in Maness’s performance. As his daughter Mayella, Hailey Townsend is even better. It's horrible stuff but great news for a stiff production that's never able to work up the momentum or sense of urgency it needs. It’s also a problem.

White America still struggles to understand the racism it creates and sustains apart from classist signifiers like trailer park teeth and overtly racist behaviors like those embodied by Lee's Ewell family. To Kill a Mockingbird, being of its time, reinforces a false dichotomy by making Bob Ewell and Atticus adversaries but not two sides of the same white supremacist narrative.

The best moments in this To Kill a Mockingbird still arrive courtesy of Maness and Townsend and a few other secondary roles, with strong character turns by JoLynn Palmer, Mario Hoyle, and Annie Freres.

I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with To Kill a Mockingbird. But as much as it may have meant to book lovers and justice-loving progressives in the 20th Century, it’s very much a product of that century and ultimately a story of white struggle and sentimentality written inside a culture of supremacy. It’s not the boldest choice for Theatre Memphis, and honestly, maybe even a little tone deaf for the place we live and this particular moment in time.

In 98 years Theatre Memphis has hired so few African Americans to direct its main stage subscription shows, you can count them all on one hand with fingers left over. Even when producing August Wilson, a playwright who asked theaters to find black directors for his work — White directors. To Kill a Mockingbird would have been as good a place as any to start growing that embarrassing number. No matter whose story it may be, ultimately, I can’t imagine we’d have gotten a show where the black life at stake — and the life eventually lost — wouldn't be pushed more to the center, and made to matter at least as much as a white attorney’s social and moral struggles or his young daughter’s disillusionment.

This show was chosen by the wonderful John Rone, and he was supposed to direct it before becoming unavailable. So I know Theatre Memphis's To Kill a Mockingbird didn't play out as intended. As a loving tribute, it may serve some completely separate community function that's only tangentially related to the show's content. But the content needs serious attention.   

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