‘Mockingbird’ and the Familiar Haunt of White Supremacy
Now through this weekend at The Paramount, the national tour of Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a strong production of a mighty familiar relic. Plus, a new work at MAP Theatre, on through 10/22, casts White Supremacy as a horror villain.
To Kill a Mockingbird @ The Paramount Theatre
National tour, performs here through 10/16. In Downtown Seattle.
I have plenty of problems with To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a White-centered, White Savior story, albeit one that backs off of it for a bit, only to double down later on. The title itself doesn’t help, employing an animal metaphor for a member of a race that White people have long disparaged through comparisons to animals, then pointing out that at least this animal is an innocent one.
These are problems inherent in staging the classic, much-heralded novel by Harper Lee, one that’s been assigned to middle and high school students for ages. (It’s also been subject to book ban campaigns, with varying levels of success; and, closer to home, removed from a nearby school’s required reading list earlier this year.)
Lee’s fictional courtroom story, published in 1960 and adapted by Aaron Sorkin for the Broadway stage in 2018, is also at points a poignant tale. It calls out pervasive racism in America’s individuals and institutions, a persistent grasp by a side that’s lost again and again — in the Civil War, in the courts, in the legislature — yet continues to grab hold by playing to the latest fears while insisting that racism, institutional or otherwise, is a thing of the past.
And it shows the grim sight when a system that claims to dispense justice — indeed, often the only system authorized to do so, at least above-board — is the one perpetuating the deepest injustice. As a character observes darkly after a lynch mob is deterred, “Maybe it’s a louder message if the law does it instead.”
Judging by the audience response and attempts at a few nice wrap-ups toward the end, some viewers of Mockingbird might come away with a message that justice was served. So why was it the Black man who didn’t get a piece of those just deserts?
It’s a question that pulses throughout Mockingbird but never finds any resolution. Indeed, much of the end of this tale is unsatisfying, including in this adaptation that seems determined to stretch out an unsatisfying ending as long as it can.
Aside from a drawn-out ending, the production itself, directed by Bartlett Sher (a prominent former Artistic Director of Seattle’s own Intiman Theatre), is quite strong. This staging combines the righteousness of an unflinching belief in justice, wretched bigotry, childlike determination and searching curiosity, and the resigned wisdom of those who’ve had the privilege to withdraw from, or must remain the targets of, unjust systems.
Its 90-minute first act, which feels shorter than its run time, burns with the suspense of legal drama. It’s a familiar but winning scene: a southern courtroom that smacks of My Cousin Vinny, a seemingly predictable outcome, and some “gotcha” moves by the defense; seasoned with the well-worn plot-driver of explosive racism. Lovely set design by Miriam Buether transports viewers seamlessly around town, without being too slick about it.
The sides of good versus evil are largely clear-cut. Broadway veteran Richard Thomas commands the stage as courtroom crusader Atticus Finch, who values justice as currency above an actual paycheck (“I’m a small town lawyer that gets paid in vegetables”). He’s the archetype of a “good man,” family-focused, devoted to justice, willing to see the humanity in everyone. That last point starts to get tedious after a few incidents of him insisting on the humanity of murderous bigots. But it does make for a compelling scene when, as he’s guarding the jail against mob rule, the sides of justice and the Klan collide in a singular figure.
That conflict is called out not by the elder Finch but by his daughter, Scout, whose strong will, intellectual curiosity, and Ramona Quimby-style devotion to fairness drives the story as much as her father’s courtroom arguments. The younger Finch’s sense of playful purpose and impatience for injustice are animated wonderfully by Melanie Moore, whose compelling energy in the role might be explained by her winning resume on So You Think You Can Dance, alongside her Broadway roles. Moore’s Scout is joined by strong performances from Justin Mark as her brother Jem Finch, and Steven Lee Johnson as their tag-along friend Dill Harris.
Bob Ewell, performed by Joey Collins, plays the perfect image of loathsome villain, combining the posture and class of Al Bundy with the steaming-over bile of the racist small-town sheriff in an early Walker, Texas Ranger episode. And Arianna Gayle Stucki’s teenage Mayella Ewell strikes a hard balance of gutless villain and much-abused victim.
I did mention the story is White-Centric, didn’t I? Even with Black characters having the most to lose at the heart of this narrative, and blessed with strong performances by Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia (regarded by the Finch family as a precarious mix of long-time maid and caretaker, and de facto family member) and Yaegel T. Welch (as the accused, Tom Robinson), the play gives them little agency to work with. And Robinson’s wife and kids are given barely a thought — most crucially by Finch, who advises his client to gamble with his life, over Robinson’s protests that his family couldn’t bear to think of his execution (a sure result of a guilty verdict, all in the hands of an unpredictable jury).
Season planners and viewers alike often observe that plays like this one — set in mid-1930s Alabama, and written before the Civil Rights Era was in full swing — remain so relevant and timely, as a reason to continue producing and watching them.
I can’t help but wonder the opposite. Have we gotten too comfortable looking at ourselves and our country in these “timely works,” we’ve forgotten they’re not supposed to be timely anymore?
To Kill a Mockingbird runs through 10/16 at The Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets are $52+, here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on 10/16 (matinee), and open-captioned performance on 10/16 (evening); see notes on ticketing page for best accessible seating options.
Run time: 3 hours, with intermission.
* * *
a white haunting – MAP Theatre @ 18th & Union
Runs through 10/22. In Seattle (Central District).
If there’s an antithesis of the White Savior story, look to a white haunting, in which White Supremacy is personified as the literal villain of a horror story.
In local playwright Brian Dang’s tale, two young gay men — Darren (Patrick Tolden) and Tchai … as in, Tchaikovsky (Rhys Daly) — are trying awkwardly to get to know each other in Darren’s apartment. It’s early, a third date, in what they both express hope will be something more lasting. They’ve ordered a pizza, that’s on the way, to accentuate their Netflix viewing, if they ever decide on something.
When the pizza arrives, things move from awkward to bad to worse.
Billed as a comedy horror, a white haunting has the pizza person (called “P.P.”), played by Brandon Ryan, as an unambiguous stand-in for White Supremacy. To the extent that the show is a comedy beyond the star-crossed daters’ pre-pizza awkwardness, it’s in the mildly comic creepiness of Ryan’s early intrusions. Ryan’s pizza person is an uneasy balance, both shamelessly unaware and shamelessly demanding. He’s that person you want to leave but can’t get rid of. Annoying, but harmless.
Until he’s not.
What follows is a rollercoaster ride of force and violence, some of it realistic and jarring — as Darren, Tolden’s increasing sense of terror is palpable — and some of it so over-the-top it would be farcical, if it were laughable. But it’s hard to find the funny when an intruder’s making your own survival contingent on you cutting off your date’s leg with an ax.
This is a comedy that’s loaded up with some heavy trauma, which will no doubt be felt differently by different viewers. If it’s close to home, is it cathartic or its own fresh kind of horror? It’s apt to vary person to person.
With direction by core company member Zenaida Rose Smith and intimacy direction by Jasmine Lomax, MAP’s staging takes strides to play up some moments of levity, which helps. Costume and prop design by Corinne Park-Buffelen and Jessamyn Bateman-Iino injects bursts of outlandishness. In villain form, Ryan plays a unique level of exuberance and creepiness that might be unmatched, though perhaps hinted at in his earlier performances as a semi-domesticated chimp in MAP’s hit Trevor (see NWT’s review here) and while lost in himself inside a dark basement in ACT and Theatre22’s excellent co-production, Downstairs.
In its subtle-as-a-bullhorn messaging to an audience of the probably-already-converted, it’s easy to wonder the who and why of this comedy-horror sans comic relief. Contrasted with To Kill a Mockingbird, its place becomes more clear. For an audience already paying attention, a white haunting looks at White Supremacy’s many forms through a surprising, and immediate, lens.
a white haunting runs through 10/22 at 18th & Union in the Central District. Tickets are $10-$50 (sliding scale available for all), here. Accessibility notes: restroom is gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre can be made wheelchair accessible with a ramp, but the restroom is not — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.