Is 'Mockingbird' too real?

Opinion: Columns

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By Doug Deuchler



Theater Critic

Since my review of Oak Park Festival Theatre's To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in these pages two Wednesdays ago [Festival triumphs with riveting 'Mockingbird', Artbeat, June 17], I have heard people comment that though they appreciated the production, there should be "some sort of warning" that it is "not for sensitive viewers." 

One of my neighbors told me she was shocked to see the Ku Klux Klan "suddenly step out of the bushes in the middle of Austin Gardens." Some folks are concerned this scene could be traumatizing, especially for African American audience members. One sensitive person expressed discomfort for a black family seated near her because the "n-word" and "boy" appeared in dialogue. 

Some who have attended the play believe such harsh elements should be omitted, that the Klan scene could be merely suggested and not so vividly portrayed. 

I strongly disagree with these well-intentioned viewers. It's important to depict the threat and the danger that lawyer Atticus Finch was up against in the Deep South of 1935. We see no racial violence portrayed. But the ugly mood and the deep-seated intolerance needs to be realistically presented. If such harsh, painful reality is softened or underplayed, Finch's courage and commitment — at great personal risk to himself and his children — is diminished and diluted. If this material is presented strongly and accurately, we witness the hatred and injustice better than any textbook can describe.

Almost since the publication of Harper Lee's novel in 1960, there has been criticism that the black characters are one-dimensional, not as fully-developed as the whites, and treated more as props. Thus it's especially important that the brutal realities of racism and the dangers of fighting back be accurately presented to reinforce why many African Americans 80 years ago held back and stayed "in their place."

Segregation is still within living memory. But young people don't often fully understand how entrenched the system was. I taught many years in a mostly black high school and whenever we discussed someone like Rosa Parks, I'd have students say things like, "Uh-uh! No way some cracker could ever make me sit in the back of the bus." Many families were clearly not sharing memories of the painful indignities and the ever-present potential for violence in the Jim Crow era.

People frequently shield kids from grim realities and withhold difficult family history. Many postwar children of Holocaust survivors were protected from the truth and often learned very little about their parents' horrific experiences. Every family edits their story. And soon we will not have any Holocaust survivors to recount their personal history.

There's no comparison, but my own white parents were very poor as teenagers in the Great Depression — my father's family lost their farm in 1932; my mother and her siblings often went hungry. (She could waste time, she could waste money — no problem. But she could never waste a speck of food.) Yet neither of my folks ever talked about what they experienced. They did not want us to know about this low point in our history (although once in a while some disturbing detail might surface, like an uncle observing that our grandfather was an alcoholic because "we lost the farm").

We are at a point when some people say we should stop teaching kids about the Holocaust, slavery, segregation, or many other difficult topics from our past. Often issues are distorted or even glorified. The film Gone With the Wind grows increasingly troublesome because its depiction of the Civil War era and postwar period implies that slavery was simply inconvenient. A scene following Scarlett's attack on a country road in which a vigilante band seek retribution is not clearly explained to viewers. Readers of the novel know that Ashley Wilkes is wounded and Scarlett's husband is killed participating in a KKK act of vengeance. Hollywood was definitely unable to accurately present such issues in 1939. Today we should illustrate such material honestly.

Yet historical reality is often soft-pedaled or played down. Back when I was teaching, whenever old racial epithets would turn up in stories or novels we were reading, like "coon," "kike," "spic," and "gook," I would have to explain these ugly, dated and forgotten slurs. I saw this as a good thing, but I did worry that as we moved further down the road, students would not fully understand or appreciate the accomplishments and commitment of those who struggled, like Atticus Finch, to eradicate prejudice and discrimination. 

It's similar to how kids here think that, from Day One, our community was always a garden of diversity.

We're clearly all too insecure about race. Over the decades, I've witnessed Festival Theatre productions chock full of ruthless murders and bloody battles (Shakespeare is full of them) yet no one ever mentioned their shock or concern. But folks seem more sensitive about To Kill a Mockingbird

Too much protection from reality can hamper a kid's ability to cope with life. Children need to learn their heritage — the good and the easy along with the ugly and difficult. 

We have to work at it and keep the dialogue flowing.

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Reader Comments

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Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: July 2nd, 2015 1:46 PM

If only such sentiment existed on college campuses. Let us not forgot, Ms. Lee's plot germinates from a false accusation of rape. Today, poor Mayella would have dragged her mattress around Maycomb and Tom Robinson's innocence would have been of no consequence.

Marlene Russum Scott from Oak Park  

Posted: July 1st, 2015 5:13 PM

Doug, I totally agree with you. I saw the KKK scene and heard the "n" word plenty of times before the rain stopped the performance. Shocking? Yes. Sometimes the truth hurts, but I would not have wanted to see a watered down version of the play.

Rose Meyer from Oak Park  

Posted: June 30th, 2015 10:33 PM

I agree completely with your stance and that we can not educate our students or younger audience members by attempting to re-write history. There was no attempt to add sensationalism or violence for an effect, but without the realism, the truth, Harper Lee's book would not be as pertinent to our times today in saying what happened then is still with us today.

Val Camilletti from oak park, iL  

Posted: June 30th, 2015 4:44 PM

Absolutely agree, Doug -- beautifully stated.

Deb Stewart from Oak Park  

Posted: June 30th, 2015 4:36 PM

Harper Lee's iconic story pulled few punches and to downplay the violence and menace about which she wrote would do the work a disservice. An even greater disservice is done to the historical truths that Lee meant to illuminate with her work; a piece of fiction, yes, but one with an intentionally specific context. This particular chapter in our national history was decidedly ugly, but given its echoes even today (5 historically Black churches in the Deep South burned to the ground in just the few days since the Confederate flag was taken down from the capital building in SC), it is crucial that we face that history, own it and deal with it. Artistic expression is an ideal vehicle for exploring teachable moments. Kudos to Festival, the director and artists for their courage in tackling such challenging subject matter.

Leonard Grossman from River Forest  

Posted: June 30th, 2015 4:22 PM

Excellent and necessary commentary

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