Don’t Forget What Your Good Book Said

Considering the rich and vital contributions to Black theater this season, is it any surprise that the hottest ticket in town is for an adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, that behemoth of self-congratulatory liberalism that continues to haunt our middle school classrooms?  Luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden, and James Comey have all made their pilgrimages to what is already being called “the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history.”  It is no less disappointing for being so predictable: as diversity on Broadway increases, money, hype, and critical acclaim remain committed to white accounts of racist violence.

You see, it’s easy to hate the villains in Mockingbird: lines likes “niggers are niggers” don’t exactly endear you to a person, and thus Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller) manages to earn our distaste pretty quickly, and that’s before we know he sexually assaults his daughter, Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi).  In other words, it’s not difficult to know where we are meant to stand here, or whom we are supposed to see as our stand-in.  Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels), complete with tortoiseshell glasses and gentlemanly jowl, is a mostly-unwavering advocate for both the American justice system and the fundamental goodness of his fellow citizens.  He’s the kind of fella who treats you the same whether you’re rich or poor, Black or white, integrationist or Klansman.  Though his philosophy receives some challenge from his maid, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), playwright Aaron Sorkin tends to side with his protagonist’s optimism.

Calpurnia, one of two speaking Black characters in a cast that has twenty, is relegated to the usual clichés: she serves as surrogate mother, surrogate wife, cook, maid, and nanny to the Finches.  When Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) observes that her father and Calpurnia behave just like “brother and sister,” this comment passes without further reflection—for example, Sorkin might emphasize that when she offers to stay up late with the children, out of fear there may be an attack on the house, Calpurnia is at work, not at home; she is with her employers, not her family.  Instead, he gives her lines like this one: “I love what I see when I look at you, Scout.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, then, is a play about racism written and directed by white people, starring white people, and clearly made for white people.  It flatters one’s illusions that racism as a phenomenon is southern and poor, surely not part of the lives of a Clinton-voting Broadway crowd.  Alabama, the state that recently almost elected a pedophile to the U.S. Senate, is an easy bugaboo and one that excuses us from self-examination; we are assured there is no Bob Ewell in any of us.  Still, much like the national media, Sorkin is more interested in Bob Ewell’s humanity than that of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the Black laborer he falsely accuses of raping Mayella.  The play is packed with Ewell spouting his racism, wrestling with his demons, sparring (far above his weight) with Atticus.  Whereas Tom Robinson, in his greatest moment of self-expression, admits on the stand—and against advice of counsel—that he felt sorry for Mayella.  It’s 2019 and above-the-title playwrights like Sorkin are still guilty of serious imaginative laziness when writing Black characters.  This is not just a failure of empathy but one of art, too.  Sorkin looks at Tom—an apparently earnest family man, disabled but still working, innocent of committing the crime that will mean his death—and asks, “But what does he think about us?”

To Kill a Mockingbird runs through July 12th at the Shubert Theatre.  225 W. 44th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 35 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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