A finely executed performance of Mockingbird at GEVA. And on the “white trash” Ewells

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GEVA Theate Center, 3/19/16 [Photo: Geva Theatre Center staff member]

Recently, deserved attention has been paid to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Our Geva Theatre Center completed a popular and acclaimed run of the dramatic adaptation by Christopher Sergel. And another stage adaption written by Aaron Sorkin is appearing for the first time on Broadway.  The publication last year of the so-called “prequel” to Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, and sadly, Lee’s recent death, have generated renewed interest in her semi-autobiographical masterpiece that explores the possibilities and limitations of social justice in the segregated south of the 1930s.

Reaching out to the community, Geva Theatre Center’s production also included a unique collaboration that allowed School of the Arts students to perform on Geva’s Wilson Stage in a “shared” performance. And Writer’s and Book’s just offered a class Re-imagining To Kill A Mockingbird, that opens for discussion a series of provocative “what-ifs.” And I know several RCSD teachers who teach Mockingbird who both saw the show and encouraged their students to go themselves — and some did.

Fortunate to have found a seat on the second to last day, I was treated to a finely crafted and deftly acted performance. Skip Greer’s carefully understated treatment of Atticus worked.  At some points, Atticus imparts his wisdom almost sotto voce.  When trying, and failing, to explain to Scout the essence of racism — “Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand” — Greer turns his head, speaking as much to Scout as to himself. We glimpse that Atticus actually does understand, but is unable to say what he really knows.

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Letter to the Editor, City, March 16 – 22, 2016

The power of the play lay in the set. Artistic director Mark Cuddy kept the stage spare, limited to five places: the front porch of the Finch’s home, the jail where Tom Robinson is held and a lynch mob gathers, the courthouse where the trial takes place, a cameo scene where the crotchety and dying Mrs. DuBoise scowls on her porch, and in the back, the house of Boo Radley — the metaphorical core of the play — where the children gather. The scenes jar against each other — the  jail lit, the homes darkened, the trial in which we sit where the jury would — as the innocent games of childhood give way to two men dead, with symbolic and real blood on several hands.

Before seeing the play, I read this letter written to the City on how black characters are represented, specifically Tom Robinson who only appears fully at the trial. The writer says Tom’s humanity is never shown; he is a one-dimensional puppy. To this I could add that a crucial scene in never used, the visit by the children to Calpurnia’s all black church.

With due respect to the opinion that the play softens the realities of racism, I disagree. Contemporary audiences at Geva know the realities: the lynchings of then, the police beatings of today. By limiting the presence of black characters, the effects of segregation are actually heightened.  Just as only seeing Boo in one scene makes more vivid his walled in, segregated existence, kept in his place just as the black people are kept in theirs. As portrayed, Tom Robinson is not so much a puppy as burdened by a self-imposed inertness.  We know Tom is fully human; the more the codes of racial segregation make him act inertly, the more we feel his humanity.

Almost inevitably, watching the play brings one back to the novel. The play itself is faithful to the book; it’s dialogue taken directly from the novel. But the novel need not be read to appreciate the play’s dramatic effectiveness. Rather, the two are complimentary.

While the novel is surely a powerful testament against racial injustice, one aspect has vexed readers and critics. What are we to conclude about the Ewells, the poor “white trash” who function as antagonists and seem, in Bob’s case, to be meted out an arguably just ending? Interestingly, the very first line of the play is, “It all began with the Ewells.”

About five years ago, I taught Mockingbird to 9th graders at McQaid Jesuit High School in Brighton.

We began by tracing the class or caste system in Lee’s imagined town of Maycomb, Alabama. At the top of the white pyramid are people like the Finches, the gentry or the educated professional elite. Beneath them are the yeomen farmers, represented by the Cunninghams. At the bottom are the white trash exemplified by the Ewells, collecting relief checks and barely subsistent.  At the same time, all three castes are granted supposed genetic or innate superiority over the segregated African-Americans.

We discussed how the system needed both whites and blacks, especially blacks, to be “kept in their place.” Hence, the dramatic tension develops when Tom Robinson crosses the boundary into Mayella Ewell’s yard.

And, underpinning racial segregation was violence or the threat of violence: lynchings. Not insignificantly, lynchings sent a message to both whites and blacks to stay in their place: blacks on the pain of death, whites who spoke out on the fear of ostracization. Maycomb may not itself have had a lynching in recent memory but the threat was always latent and palpable.

First showing how the Ewell’s are demonized or negatively rendered, one student, Matt (whose last name I unfortunately forget) took his analysis further by looking at an often buried subtext.

Matt argued that the Ewells — as representatives of the lowest white class — did the “dirty work” of the gentry. i.e. Atticus. In Matt’s reading, the higher class whites, especially the enlightened, noble, color-blind Atticus, could not do the lynchings themselves. The Ewells thus serve as a kind of necessary ingredient in maintaining the racial and social order.  Within the universe of the novel, Matt posited a symbolic and real “unholy alliance” between the Atticus Finches and the Bob Ewells.

Throughout the novel, the Ewell’s are referred to negatively (which Matt thought was unfair).  When we first meet the Ewell children, they come to school infected with lice. According to Scout, Atticus tells her the Ewells (the emblems of white trash) “have been the disgrace of  Maycomb for three generations,” adding “they were people but they lived like animals.” When discussing the Ewell children’s truancy, Atticus says:

“There are ways of keeping them in school by force, but it’s silly to force people like the Ewells into a new environment — “

Atticus even implies incestuous in breeding taking place, saying, according to Scout, “the Ewell’s were members of an exclusive society made up of Ewells.”

By invoking a hereditary taint (generations of disgrace), fixed traits (no new environment), unnatural sexual practices (members up of an exclusive society made up of Ewells) and animal-like characteristics (unhygienic and crawling with lice) the novel invokes the negative tropes ascribed to blacks and projects or displaces them onto the poor white trash.

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Looking a little more like a Ewell than a Finch [Photo: Dawn Kellogg] 3/18/16

A crucial line is when Atticus says:

In certain circumstances the common folk judiciously allowed them [the Ewells] certain privileges by the simple method of becoming blind to some of the Ewell’s activities.

On the surface, Atticus means the Ewells don’t have to go to school and are allowed to poach. Beneath that is looking the other way at their inbreeding. And beneath that is another expedient blindness: when a lynching needs to be done in the dead of night, the Ewells will do it.

A lynching almost does take place.  A mob of yeoman farmers led by Cunningham approach Atticus who is guarding Tom locked in the jail (in the play Tom is not visible).  The mob does not like the Ewells but lends support based on racial solidarity. In the moment of crisis, Atticus disperses the mob. Order is maintained as the mob defers to Atticus, one caste above them.

The non-lynching leads to the trial. There, more sordid features of the Ewells are revealed. Sprinkling his testimony with sexual innuendos, Bob Ewell is displayed as given to drunken bouts and violence. His daughter Mayella will reflexively lie to hide her guilt and shame. But the guilty verdict is basically predetermined. The jury sends the message about not staying in your place.

The animal Ewells have done their job. The caste system holds. And courageous Atticus can never be accused of being complicit, pretending not to understand why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up. (Although Atticus’ position in society ultimately benefits from the caste and racial arrangements.)

In the end, Ewell — and his dirty work and that unholy alliance subtext — must be eliminated. To do so, the novel employs a kind of deus ex machina. Intent on harming the Atticus children, Ewell is killed (or as the official account says, he fell on his knife) by the now redeemed Boo Radley, the son of a gentry doctor.  Literary theorists would say the novel creates “an imaginary solution;” first it raises social anxieties or tensions (that the unholy alliance will be revealed) but then suppresses or erases the same tensions  — as Ewell erases himself. Order is restored.

Matt’s 9th grade interpretation — to which I really only added details and terminology — is persuasive.

This reading of how the white trash are represented in the novel left me wondering about Lee’s otherwise clear “moral vision.” Does her depiction of the Ewells reveal her own blindness to the biases of her gentry class, projecting the worst traits and deepest racism onto those below her? Where is social justice for the untouchables?

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with Jackie [Photo: Stephanie A. Stockmeister, creative writing student at SUNY Brockport] 3/19/16

The answer is unclear. Arguably, the power of Lee’s vision is that she sprinkles the novel with hints and clues about the darker undersides. The reader is left, like Scout, and, yes, like Atticus, to imperfectly fit together the pieces of a world both noble and trapped: the Mockingbird in its cage.

One of the pleasures of the Geva Theatre Center is meeting the other theater lovers. That day, while waiting in the standby line for tickets, I met Jacqueline Milligan, who teaches English to international students at SUNY Buffalo and was making this part of day trip to be followed by the RPO.  From Jackie, I learned that Buffalo’s main theater Studio Arena had closed several years ago. Luckily, for stage fans like Jackie, Geva is just down the road and even better. And Buffalo’s alternative weekly, Art Voice, now reviews Geva performances.

Our two tickets by chance side by side, Jackie and I discussed my intended approach.  She found it intriguing and gave the term used earlier to describe the Ewells, the “necessary ingredient.” We both took mental notes as the Ewells appeared, watching as Bob was transformed from an amiable swaggering dufus expecting a hero’s welcome into a blindsided uncomprehending object of Atticus’ dissection.  In the end, we agreed the play was finely executed and had captured our imaginations.  And that Matt had given us food for thought.

SEE ALSO

Deconstructing (and admiring) GEVA’s “Miracle on South Division Street” through the looking glass.

Seeing Red. Did we violate “sacred space” backstage at GEVA?