SHENECTADY — Before the cast of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes the Proctors stage for opening night, they’re tasked with spreading the word: The racism depicted in this Depression-era story is still here today.
Set in 1934 Alabama, Lee’s enduring story of racial injustice and childhood innocence centers on one of the most revered characters in American literature, small-town attorney Atticus Finch. The cast of characters includes Atticus’ daughter Scout, Ella’s brother Jem, her housekeeper and caretaker Calpurnia, Ella’s visiting friend Dill, and a mysterious neighbor, the lonely Arthur “Boo” Radley.
The adaptation of Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin’s novel still tells the story of racial injustice through Scout’s eyes, but enhances it by sharing more of Tom Robinson’s character and voice.
The coming-of-age story takes a turn when the lawyer decides to represent Robinson, a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Despite mounting evidence pointing against Robinson, Finch and his family see their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama turn against them.
Outside of the play, Atticus’ flashpoint is somewhat reminiscent of larger events that revealed racism when society thought it was gone. Yaegel T. Welch, who plays Robinson, points to the Rodney King incident of the 1990s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the riots that followed both.
“Suddenly it turns on this motivation to fight these causes,” he said. “I think he’s a wash, rinse, repeat kind of things that we’re having in society, because it’s not necessarily new. I think with camera phones, they have to be more careful about racism.”
Welch conjured up images of black protesters hosed down in front of television cameras, with police dogs biting their limbs. She showed how public policy leaves room for racial injustice to occur. How Stand Your Ground justified the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. How police officers in Kentucky shot and killed Breonna Taylor after they entered her apartment in a botched drug investigation. There were no convictions.
Then there was George Floyd, who died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A video that captured the event ultimately led to Chauvin’s murder conviction. He was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
“It lets me know that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not in a time capsule. It’s just a different costume,” Welch said.
The play’s success is often explained by how Sorkin expands on Robinson’s character. He lends a man a voice, Melanie Moore said, which is in “two chapters” in the original book.
Moore plays Scout in the tour production. She has seen the Broadway play three times. Growing up in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, Moore said she witnessed the covert racism she sees in Atticus Finch. Emmy Award winner Richard Thomas plays the patriarch. He is an imperfect man facing his own prejudices, he said. Racism is ingrained in the culture, which she wasn’t aware of until she started looking seriously at life in 2020. She mentions the popular southern phrase “bless your heart”; implying something more malicious than what appears on the surface.
“I hope that people come to see our show and are motivated to get involved in their communities and call their senators,” he said, “and want to meet people who are not like them, to understand why this keeps happening.”
Welch said he feels rewarded for his part in such a “transformational” production and sees it healing society by addressing issues “that we’ve been uncomfortable with.” Moore added that he hopes audience members will be inspired to create change in their own lives, their neighbors, and “in the lives of people they may not know.”
“I hope our show can hold up a mirror and say, ‘Who do you play in this town? Are you Atticus?’” she said. ” Wait [the show] It will allow people to take a look at themselves and what role they play in their own communities right now. So when this show comes back to life 50 years from now… I hope it will look a lot different.”
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” opens at Proctors on Tuesday, June 14 and runs through Sunday, June 19. Tickets are available at the Proctors Box Office by visiting Proctors.org or by calling 518-346-6204. For more information, visit proctors.org.