Even as Jeff Daniels stands in the legendary Gregory Peck’s stead as Atticus Finch, “To Kill A Mockingbird” remains the same classic story with the same lessons for mankind.
Not even Broadway theatrics from a playwriting genius like Aaron Sorkin or a California-made film can ever refashion Harper Lee’s nonpareil book about racial injustice in this country, whether it occurred in Monroeville, McComb or Manhattan.
The cliché says no region of America area has a copyright on racial injustice. We are all guilty. We do not have to be reminded of this fact in a book, even one of that won almost every literature award imaginable after it was published in 1960, or on the dramatic stage. It won’t hurt us to hear it again, however.
Sorkin, whose play is being performed eight times weekly on Broadway, is quoted in “Playbill” as saying: “What I hope, because so many of us read the book in school and (had) a discussion about it, is that we can add to that discussion.”
A veteran New York theater-goer admitted to me during the intermission that the type of evil portrayed by “Mockingbird” happens all the time in his city.
“You see it everywhere and it’s clearer today because of the racially polarized politics we are experiencing. We know it happens in the South, but I also know from friends in Alabama that things are better there today than they were in the era this play depicts,” he said.
Despite this improvement of race relations, Southerners attending the play on Broadway know they’re likely to have to mount a defense of their region.
The first time “y’all” comes out, someone will want to know where you are from. When you tell them Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia, their eyes and ears perk straight up.
Some people outside the South rarely hear or see a live Southern human being up close and they want to check your pulse to see if you are real. They want to know your prejudices, even if they will not discuss their own.
The defense of our sphere, if that’s the plan, must begin with the admittance of the wrongs that have haunted the South. It also must be admitted these wrongs continue today — everywhere. As the man said, no place has a monopoly on unproductive racial form.
Lee’s book was believed to be based on real-life events chronicled in 1930s Alabama, where her father defended black clients, was elected to the state legislature and ran the local weekly newspaper in Monroeville.
It was hard for a lawyer in these parts to get an acquittal for a black person wrongfully accused of a crime against a white person. Conversely, almost all whites who committed crimes against blacks went free in that era.
It took a complex set of circumstances for whites to face legal actions for such crimes, but it happened, even in racially torn McComb in late 1964, when a dozen white men faced charges and jail for the firebombing of black-owned residences and churches.
The judge allowed them to plead guilty in order to receive a suspended sentence because he knew an all-white jury would never have convicted them. He also warned the men that if the city experienced any more such violence, they’d go to jail immediately.
Back to the live drama. Daniels won’t make you forget Peck, but he was forceful as Atticus Finch and has been nominated for numerous dramatic awards, including Best Actor.
Celia Keenan-Bolger’s co-protagonist role of Scout, the daughter of Atticus, has drawn the admiration of critics and should win Best Actress.
I thought Shakespearean scholar and English professor Dakin Matthews was phenomenal as “Judge Taylor,” who presided over the trial of the accused Tom Robinson.
“Scout’s” line near the end of the drama, “Doing the right thing is always the right thing,” says it all, wherever and however it appears.
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb. He is a retired newspaperman. He can be reached at macmarygordon @gmail.com.