note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
Harper Lee’s groundbreaking 1960 novel, To KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, has been banned over the years by conservative school boards and more recently taken to task by political correctionists for its use of the “N” word. It certainly is jarring to witness the indignities, and injustices which were commonplace in recent history---- but theater, as Shakespeare famously said, “holds the mirror up to nature.” And as Harper Lee describes the white folk of Maycomb County, Georgia, in her story: These folks “had a mean streak.”
Marshall Hughes’ newly formed Roxbury Community College repertory company has embraced actors from as close as RCC and (one) as far away as New Hampshire. They plan four productions a year, one of which, like MOCKINGBIRD, is being taught in the local schools. This spring they will dramatize Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s HEART OF HAPPY HOLLOW.
Judging from the student reactions to the racist language, and their thoughtful questions at the talkback, it was clear to see that the story had engaged, and even astonished, them. It’s a sign that the world is a better place today, that some found the events of the story hard to even imagine.
Lee’s story centers around a white lawyer who chooses, despite the wrath of his fellow white citizens, to defend a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. In Lee’s idealistic story, a lynch mob is averted from their purpose by the lawyer’s trusting little girl. She engages the men in conversation and diffuses the riot by making them ashamed. (What keeps them from coming back later after she’s gone is anybody’s guess but that’s not the way Lee’s story goes.)
Although Lee clearly intended for the lawyer (portrayed by Mark Salata) and his family to be the focus of the novel, Hughes cleverly places the defendant center stage. When we first meet him, he is in jail with his back to the audience. It’s a tribute to Greg Francis’ powerful performance that we are riveted to his presence, even though we can’t see his face. Francis has an intensity which radiates from the stage throughout the trial (and after the verdict).
Lee Carter Browne is the Harper Lee stand-in, the narrator who offers folk wisdom and pithy commentary. Michael Casey and Elise Miwa, with the aid of Charlie Imhoff, offer the child’s eye view of racism and injustice. RCC’s Wanda Smallwood portrays the lawyer’s trusted housekeeper/mother figure to his sometimes undisciplined children. Tom Pendergast, in the small role of the outcast recluse, gives the play even more resonance, when he turns out to be their unexpected guardian. (Lee has many lessons to impart in one short story.)
Tony Poole is a standout as the embodiment of evil, the man who will stop at nothing to ruin anyone and anything he hates, including himself. Julie Dapper is his pathetic, doomed daughter and Christopher Wrenn is a pleasure to watch as the fair minded sheriff. Hughes himself stood in for composer Alan Rias at this performance and sang Rias’ sad, haunting original anthem with a moving, plaintive delivery.
Hughes is a firm believer in audience involvement –so actors sit on the steps and run through the aisles. He even invites members of the audience to be part of the jury. Inclusion is the mission of the new company and Hughes is tireless in his outreach. (If only the RCC stage were not so cavernous, a problem of many a college auditorium, making it difficult to hear actors standing at the back of the stage. When the playing area is moved forward, the problem is solved, as it was in Hughes’ adaptation of Alice in Wonderland a few seasons ago.)