When the 2016/2017 Waukesha Civic Theatre season was announced and I saw that To Kill A Mockingbird was on the list, I knew that I would clamor and claw for the opportunity to direct this play. I have taught the novel to my freshman World Literature class, and year after year, it sparks a vibrant conversation of race, equality, poverty, violence, innocence, desperation, and hope. It is a story that speaks to my heart and screams to my conscience. I see myself in Scout – in her compulsion to stand up for what’s right, and to be the voice for those who are too scared or unable to speak up. I even named my daughter Harper in tribute to Ms. Lee. It is a dream of mine to direct the stage play of Mockingbird – to bring this conversation to life as only theatre can, and I am deeply humbled to be trusted to tell this story with an incredible team of actors and designers.
I am thrilled to see Harper Lee’s novel bringing our community and schools together, in partnership with the Waukesha Reads program. To Kill A Mockingbird is an intelligent and timely choice for Waukesha Civic Theatre at this point in history. With tensions high, the conversation of the racial divide in America is vital as ever. Voices are raised, fires are burning, and yet voices are going unheard. We need to hear one another and listen to the singing of the “mockingbirds,” so that we can find understanding. In this play, the echoes of slavery are heard in the deeply-rooted segregation of the South, just as the echoes of segregation are heard in towns across America today. Mockingbird not only serves as a reflection of the past, but it mirrors today’s world and provides a lens through which we can look into the future. While you can look for villains in this play, they are hard to pin down. Even the apparent villains are victims of circumstance, aren’t they? Ignorance, poverty, culture, and fear stand in the way of progress in Harper Lee’s 1934 Maycomb, Alabama as they continue to do today across America. If I had to guess, I would say that Harper Lee would never have imagined just how relevant her story would be in the year 2016, and I have to wonder if she would how discontented she would be. My fervent hope is that in my lifetime, this play will become antiquated; it will become a piece of history we will use to look back with gratitude on a time before things changed.
I hope that you find truth here today – that you find laughter, and that you find heartache; I most certainly have found all of these things in building this show with our team. I would like to thank John Cramer for giving me the opportunity to direct Mockingbird, my incredible cast for trusting me and one another, and bringing with them a goodness of heart that moves me, and my production team of artists and organizers who make this show possible. I am forever grateful to my supportive and loving family, Aaron (lighting/sound designer), Jaxon, and Harper. Please help us spread the word and fill this house each performance. We are so glad you are here.
The last we saw of Atticus Finch, when the Oscar winning performance of Gregory Peck’s film followed the release of the novel, he was sitting in the corner of injured son Jem’s bedroom, the warm arms of his cardigan sweater wrapping and re-wrapping around the clinging figure of his daughter Scout, the three of them recovering from a painful experience of racism, hatred, and violence, and the often lonely cost of standing against it.
I have a feeling that many of us, both on the stage and in the audience, whether fans of the book or film or both, join Scout and her older self Jean Louise in waiting to see Atticus again.
The play strikes a chord for me as I had a very Atticus-like father, a dead ringer in both looks and mannerisms and as I grew into an adult and journalist, I had the opportunity to see lawyers and judges in action at the county courthouse in Virginia. And just as I still get that experience today covering trials today in rural Wisconsin, I also have witnessed the conflicts of race and prejudice all too recently near us in Milwaukee and through the nation.
Like Scout at the start of the play we wait for Atticus to return from the courthouse. Like Jean Louise at the end we look back through the window, and through the decades, wishing we could go back to him, to speak to him and finish the lessons. Lessons of putting ourselves in others shoes, and realizing that even as we rail against what isn’t right, we are not alone as others quietly do the uncomfortable business of protecting Mockingbirds be they a Tom Robinson or a Boo Radley.
I suspect those of us who were graced with a great father miss him; and those of us who didn’t miss and yearn for such an experience.
Fortunately Christopher Sergel’s play gives us that opportunity in an up-close and live setting not to be missed. It’s been said that in some ways To Kill A Mockingbird is a love letter from novelist Harper Lee to her father. Of the several Sergel versions of the play that exist, the one being performed at Waukesha Civic Theatre comes closest to depicting that moment, and lifetime of reaching out to Atticus.
It’s a safe bet you’ll feel him reaching back and holding you safe.
Written by Jim McClure, who plays Judge Taylor in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Waukesha Civic Theatre