As only a handful of American works have, its incarnations as book and movie achieved an almost perfect synthesis; the images of the movie so entangled with the memories of reading the book that they reinforced themselves like building waves on a beach. The recent, questionable release of Go Set a Watchman doesn’t detract from the power or the phenomenon of the original. In fact, it almost certainly reignited interest in Lee’s one true work, an interest that, now fueled anew by Lee’s death this week, will hopefully provoke a another generation to discover the power and profound compassion of this American masterpiece.
Playhouse Tulsa’s production of Mockingbird at the PAC is part of an ongoing, culture-wide tribute to Lee’s accomplishment. We want to be reminded of and re-experience this story again, even if for the first time (remember, it’s already in our unconscious, just from the fact of our living here in a culture that it’s helped shape). And so the play is produced in Tulsa as it has been across the country; and so a sequel of dubious quality becomes a national best seller; and so, finally, Harper Lee’s passing provokes and will continue to provoke an outpouring of tributes and memorials, from writers and readers and people who simply remember the first time they ever saw Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. We look for reasons to return to this image of America that is infinitely worse than it should be, and yet, in the courage of Atticus, the dignity of Tom Robinson, and the simple compassion of Scout, infinitely better than we are.
The play as performed by Playhouse Tulsa and as directed by Courtneay Sanders is neatly divided into 3 sections. It begins without curtain speech or dimming of lights with music, thrilling music, a Sunday morning in the Negro church, a glimpse into the life of the black community of Maycomb.
All through the opening section, Sanders keeps the story and characters solidly set within a community divided into black and white. The imagery is fresh, unique, and alive. It’s nigh on a perfect example of reworking a classic story into a new experience, utilizing movement and creative staging to keep us engaged, all the while reminding us that this is a rigidly segmented society.
The second section is the trial, and is the longest of the three. And, unfortunately, Sanders is not quite able to solve the problem of how to bring that same sense of life and movement into the courtroom scene. A judge’s bench and witness stand become anchors that prevent the freedom of movement we see in the opening section, and ultimately create a static tableau that begins to drain the energy from the drama. Though Adrian Alexander as Atticus and the other characters are certainly competent, there is perhaps a too-respectful approach to the story that inhibits a sense of urgency, the urgency of trying to prevent a man from being put to death for a crime he didn’t commit, a crime, in fact, that never occurred.
The script itself seems to struggle in the last section, where we learn Tom Robinson’s final fate and finally meet Boo Radley. The detailed telling of the trial gives way to a sketchy and episodic narration that rushes towards the climactic, “Hey Boo,” but doesn’t seem to know what to do with it once there. Sean Irish’s unit set, as gorgeous as it is, begins to limit the staging possibilities by its lack of downstage elements. By the end, the play is more to be admired as an echo of Lee’s story than a memorable experience in itself.
Which brings me to this. A great many of the actors in this production are ORU students, many of them appearing with Playhouse for the first time. These are largely actors Sanders has trained in her capacity as Director of Theatre at ORU, and besides giving them an opportunity to stretch their skills, this casting provided Playhouse with an absolutely necessary component for Mockingbird—the black community of Maycomb is fully portrayed onstage, with well over a dozen African-American actors (and the source for that incredible music that begins the play and returns to delineate its three sections). In fact, Playhouse consistently fields the most diverse casts in Tulsa, with the possible exception of Theatre North, whose work, I am ashamed to admit, I am not familiar with. Playhouse is able to do this because of its close relationship with the ORU theatre program, and the fact that, at least in recent years, their theatre program has been home to the most diverse group of student actors among colleges and universities in the Tulsa area, very likely the state, and perhaps well beyond. This is a fact not widely known nor credited in the local community.
In the movie, the trial shot of a ‘Whites only’ floor and a ‘Blacks only’ balcony has become an icon, an image so powerful it may remain a part of our cultural identity for as long as an American culture exists. Part of Harper Lee’s legacy is our bone-deep knowledge that this image does not reflect what we’re supposed to be. Sadly, this division between black and white still remains a reality in many of our neighborhoods, our jobs, our schools. But not everywhere.
Many of my readers likely have issues with ORU and with the Christian community at large. These issues are often significant and well justified. But in a time when our leaders deny even common courtesy to those with whom they disagree, when the fashion is to see the world as divided sharply between good and evil, black and white, divided as sharply as in that balcony scene, the very survival of our culture may depend on something as simple as giving credit where credit is due.
Ms. Lee’s legacy is being honored on the Playhouse stage this weekend. In the very act of portraying the injustice of an earlier time, injustice that still imprisons us today, these performers embody a world in the process of breaking loose from those shackles. And that seems, to me at least and especially so this week, as worthy of note.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre