I still remember being in my sophomore English class of about 30 students (only three of us African-American) reading aloud the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
We had just finished “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and to be quite honest, I’d had my fill of white people saying the n-word. At 15 years of age, I wasn’t getting the message that Jim was actually a hero, all I knew was I was ashamed of the broken English and near a boiling point hearing white kids laughing at Jim’s dialect and saying the n-word seemingly in every sentence read. And now here we were again with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” … the n-word being spewed prominently.
But early on, I realized something was different. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was speaking to me. It resonated with me. The shame of the n-word wasn’t with me, but now with the 20-something white kids in the class. They were seeing the evil in the word … but more importantly in the actions that were perpetrated by those who flung the word so freely.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is the story of race and class in the American South as seen through the innocent eyes of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a six- to eight-year-old white girl living in rural Alabama. The backdrop centers on the trial and subsequent conviction of a Black man, Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.
Once we finished reading the book, we watched the movie version. Great movie; but as with almost all movies adapted from books, it fell short of the paper version. Since graduating high school, I took the opportunity to see a couple of stage adaptations of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. While entertaining, they were just that and nothing more.
The same cannot be said for the Christopher Sergel adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” currently running through Oct. 18 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. This adaptation was masterful in its execution and featured a few standout performances.
Much of the fluff and character development has been removed in Sergel’s adaptation of “Mockingbird,” as it seems to pick up midstream of the novel. Not more than five minutes in, the audience is hit with the n-word, and it’s a jolt coming from a child’s voice offstage and later repeated by young Mary Bair, who wonderfully plays Scout. But it’s this abruptness that sets the tone for the rest of the play. This adaptation is very much an “in your face” look at race and racism in America, softened slightly through the lenses of a young child and her idealistic father, Atticus Finch, played by Baylen Thomas.
Both Bair and Thomas offer superb performances.
Another standout performance was given by Ansa Akyea, who plays Robinson. Akyea doesn’t really appear until the second act, but his performance as Robinson – a man on trial for his life – is truly gripping. The fear that his voice conveyed while delivering his lines shows he genuinely reflected on how Black males in America have endured and continue to endure wrongful prosecution – and in some cases, on the spot mob executions – simply just for being.
While the Harper Lee version of “Mockingbird” heavily focuses on the reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley; in Sergel’s stage adaptation, directed by John Miller-Stephany, Sergel and Stephany rightfully focus on the injustice of Robinson being on trial and the larger issue of racism and oppression in America.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” opened to a packed house. It is my hope that more Black people will make their way to the theater for this wonderfully told story. This is a play worth seeing.