Schenectady — Before the cast of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” took the Proctors stage on opening night, they were tasked with publicity: The racism depicted in the Depression-era storyline still exists today.
Set in Alabama in 1934, Lee’s enduring story of racial injustice and childhood innocence centers on one of the most revered figures in American literature, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch. The cast includes Atticus’ daughter Scout, her brother Jem, their housekeeper and caretaker Calpurnia, their visiting friend Dill, and a mysterious neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley.
Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel still tells the story of racial injustice through the eyes of the Boy Scouts, but he strengthens it by sharing more of Tom Robinson’s character and his voice.
The coming-of-age story took a turn when lawyers decided to represent young black Robinson, who was accused of raping a white woman. Finch and his family saw their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, turn against them despite mounting evidence that Robinson went against the grain.
Outside of the drama, Atticus’ flashpoint is somewhat reminiscent of the larger event that exposed racism when society thought it was gone. Yeager T. Welch, who plays Robinson, points to the Rodney King affair of the 1990s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the riots that followed.
“Suddenly, it ignited the drive to fight those causes,” he said. “I think it’s a wash, rinse, repeat The kind of thing we have in society because it’s not necessarily new. I think with camera phones, they have to be more careful about racism. “
Welch imagined black protesters being washed away in front of TV cameras, police dogs biting their limbs. It shows how public policy can provide space for racial injustice to occur. How to hold the line to justify the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. How Kentucky police shot and killed Breonna Taylor after she stormed her apartment in a botched drug-dealing investigation. No conviction.
Then there was George Floyd, who died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A video documenting the incident ultimately led to Chauvin’s murder. He was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
“It let me know that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t in a time capsule. It was just a different costume,” Welch said.
The show’s success can often be explained by how Sorkin expanded Robinson’s character. Melanie Moore said it gave a voice to a man who was in “two chapters” of the original.
Moore played Scout on tour. She watched the Broadway show three times. Moore, who grew up in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, said she witnessed the covert racism she saw in Atticus Finch. Emmy winner Richard Thomas portrays the patriarch. He was a flawed man fighting his own prejudices, she said. Racism is so ingrained in the culture that she didn’t realize it until 2020 when she started taking life seriously. She doesn’t mention the popular Southern phrase “bless your heart”; suggesting something more malicious than it seems.
“I want people to come to our show and feel motivated to get involved in their communities and call their senators,” she said, “and to meet people who are different from them — to understand why this is still happening .”
Welch said he has found it rewarding to be involved in such a “transformative” work, which he believes heals society by addressing issues “that we’ve been uncomfortable with.” Moore added that she hopes viewers will be inspired to make a difference in their own lives, their neighbors, and “the lives of people they may not know.”
“I want our show to hold up a mirror and say, ‘Who are you playing in this town? Are you Atticus?'” she said. ” I hope [the show] Will allow people to look at themselves and the role they now play in their own community. So when the show restarts after 50 years…I expect it will look very different. “
Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” opens at Proctors on Tuesday, June 14th and runs through Sunday, June 19th. Tickets can be purchased from the Proctors Box Office by visiting Proctors.org or by calling 518-346-6204. For more information, visit proctors.org.