When the white understudy first says “nigger” in rehearsal, the whole place becomes tense. You can feel it. Not just because of that word but because the actor using it is 10 years old, looks even younger, has wide blue eyes and wears a modified bowl haircut. This child is scripted to say that word.
It is June 30 in the Lakeview School gym in Greensboro, Vt. We are gathered for the first read-through of a stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird and there is young Walter Cunningham Jr. confronting the lawyer’s daughter: “Hey Scout, how come your daddy defends niggers?” It is just a moment, the hush that comes over us, a ghost moment of solemnity before the forbidden.
Then Scout tells him to take it back, he doesn’t, she beats him up, the reading goes on.
And there is Walter Cunningham Sr., my character, a farmer, deathly poor in 1935 Georgia. Walter hates Atticus Finch for defending a black rapist. Walter admires Atticus because Atticus does his legal work and lets him pay with turnip greens and kindling.
And Tom Robinson, who actually never raped anyone, killed by prison guards, his wife Helen screaming at Atticus, “Mr. Finch, how could they shoot Tom!” And his reply, “Helen, to them he was just an escaping prisoner. He wasn’t Tom to them.”
They were able to shoot him because he was something other than a man.
Greensboro is 45 minutes north of Montpelier, the remote area of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom. (It is remote, of course, except to the people who live there. To people here, Chicago is remote.) Its population of 800 swells to about 2,500 in the summer when people visit their summer homes, many of which surround Lake Caspian. (For people who don’t have a house on the lake there is a public beach. A child could throw a stone the length of it.)
The local theater company producing the play (along with two others this summer, “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Sinners”) is the Mirror Repertory Company and draws actors from Vermont and Atlanta, Broadway and off-Broadway and elsewhere on the east coast.
To Kill A Mockingbird, published in 1960, has the status of Huck Finn or even “Romeo and Juliet.” It seems as if it is always in the air. Last year’s release of Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set A Watchman, was something of a national controversy. Her death six months ago was front page news.
Most people who grew up in this country know the book so well calling it fiction can almost feel wrong. Scout and Jem try to get Boo Radley to come out of his house. Tom Robinson is convicted of rape and later shot trying to escape prison. In an act of vengeance the children are attacked, their assailant knifed to death. It is so familiar it sometimes can seem more real to us than our own lives.
And in a specific way, in these past few days, it is our own lives. The killings and retaliation and a special kind of madness taking over a people. The parallels are not exact, they never are, but it is all true. Baton Rouge, Dallas, a suburb of Minneapolis. The shooting of black men and cops, the spiral of racial violence, the innocent taken down and the guilty going free, another pathetic novel of real American life.
But there is another real thing to consider: Sometimes the response to all this can be more powerful than the chaos and violence itself. When Tom Robinson testifies on the stand, he is deferential to his accuser, Mayella Ewell. He goes out of his way to avoid putting her down. Asked if Mayella is lying, Tom replies, “I don’t say she’s lying, I say she’s mistaken.” As a black man in the south in the 1930s, he walks a harrowing line of saying true things but doing so with extraordinary charity toward white people who say differently.
And it so happens that the actor playing Tom Robinson, Lando Griffin, himself no stranger to racism, does something similar. Asked about his thoughts on this country’s racial drama, in particular the violence against black men, he replies with similar grace. “Those officers want to go back home and love their families at the end of the day.” (This was even a few days before the Dallas shootings, when it became a bit more socially acceptable to be sympathetic to cops.)
“They want to feel safe doing their job protecting and serving.” And for the black men gunned down, “whatever the situation they may have wound up in, whether it was a bad decision or a wrong turn, they want to go back home to their families too.”
A statement like this is not naive and simplistic, an excusing of wrongs or a “selling out” to the powers that be. Whatever reforms need to happen, convictions won, injustices addressed, laws changed, there is also a basic human need to hear each other out, to see what’s going on with someone else.
It’s not unlike what Atticus Finch says to his kids. To understand a person, you need to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In a way, that is what this production is about. Because real life horror can be rendered toothless and distant if a person chooses to ignore it. But the best of art is never distant—it hits us across the face. It puts us in someone else’s skin. A great piece of writing or acting can puncture the conscience in a way nothing else can.
For some of us, a video of militarized cops assaulting protesters in Baton Rouge is sad and disturbing. But a kid standing under bright lights 10 feet away, cheerfully saying the “n-word,” this can be an utter shock to the heart. To a lot of people, the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling will come and go, but the shooting of Tom Robinson is real and will live forever.
It’s not that works of art transform social wrongs, not by any stretch. It’s just this: for a few weeks under a white tent on the north side of a “remote” town, actors will be telling a brilliant, wrenching story over and over again. And trying to do it well enough so that, if the drama out there doesn’t rend our hearts and call us to something better, maybe this story will.
“To Kill A Mockingbird,” produced by the Mirror Repertory Company and directed by Sabra Jones will run from July 21 to August 14 in Greensboro, Vt. For more information go to www.themirror.org.
Joe Hoover is an actor and playwright and America’s poetry editor.