Recently, I went on a school visit to see To Kill a Mockingbird at The Barbican, and whilst I think the actors played their parts incredibly well – especially Zackary Momoh, who played the role of the falsely accused Tom Robinson – I’m not writing here to give a glowing review. I read the book around the time I started my job at the school three years ago, yet the play, adapted by Christopher Sergel, had a different impact on me.
Actors slipped in and out of character to read directly from the book, narrating through a multitude of different accents, obviously showing that they were each sentimentally and emotionally affected by the text. This sentimentality, however, was lost on me, and as the production drew on, I came to think of it as unnecessary that it was being heralded to such acclaim in 2015.
My first thought on the centrality of race in the play brings me back to why I haven’t been so keen to step back into the Barbican, since white South African Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B’ was rightly chastised as ‘an exhibition of white privilege’ by protesters last year. A colleague of mquestioned Lee’s story’s relevance now, and why – in a work about racism – white people are still the ones in the lead. I couldn’t help but wish I were watching a play featuring black people that wasn’t about racism, or slavery, or representing black people as subservient to white.
I couldn’t help but wish I were watching a play featuring black people that wasn’t about racism, or slavery, or representing black people as subservient to white.
Whilst it is, of course, important to remember history, I believe this is actually evidence of white supremacy, just as in the case of the film industry and issues of funding for black writers and directors. To Kill a Mockingbird is exemplary of the white saviour narrative, and its use of binary opposition of good and evil in order to present Robinson in a positive light is condescending. This is true in terms of the ‘mockingbird’ metaphor, which ties into the overall portrayal of black people in the novel as passive victims, thus ignoring black resistance and its importance in history.
I’m sat with just four students, but the naughtiest of the group (two later came back from the interval soaking wet from a water fight). Before the play had started, one of the boys asked another boy ‘Are you on your period?’ I felt this moment exemplified the casual sexism and misogyny amongst young people, and that in dealing with such binaries between victim and perpetrator, something gets lost in the conversation. It suddenly struck me at this point that there is cause for concern regarding how this topic is written about in terms perhaps of male on female rape and sexual assault (but arguably all cases of sexual assault). My main issue is how this was dealt with on stage. Its problems arguably exist in the book too, but Harper Lee’s novel perhaps allowed for the rape accusation to feel less central to its meaning. We live in a society where white people still hold most of the power, as do men. Within a patriarchal context, a context of rape culture, I became worried about how these boys were reading the book and the play. I felt extremely uncomfortable when Mayella Ewell, the accuser, was addressed to speak.
Ewell is asked questions such as “Did you scream and fight back?” in a drawn out process that would be out of order if Ewell was telling the truth
To not feel uneasy would come with the knowledge that we know that Ewell is lying, and that the focus of the plot is about race politics. However, the jury do not know she is lying, and it is Atticus’ job to show she has made a false accusation. What impression do we get then, when Ewell is asked questions such as “Did you scream and fight back?” in a drawn out process that would be out of order if Ewell was telling the truth? We know that there are many instances of rape where victims do not scream or “fight back”, and to suggest otherwise is akin to victim-blaming. Not to mention the dominance of false rape claim narratives building a skewed picture of the reality of rape, where false claims are in fact in line with all other crimes.
On my return from the theatre, I couldn’t merely state that I enjoyed the play; or that it was well acted; or say anything positive – not without also mentioning these issues with it. It raises the question of Lee’s much-anticipated sequel to this book. Although actually written in the 1950s, before To Kill a Mockingbird, it tells the story of an adult Scout Finch. It will be interesting to see the relevance of the narrative and how the two books connect. Published without revision, I expect it won’t offer much in the light of these criticisms, yet it will undoubtedly sell well due to the the sentimental value that To Kill a Mockingbird possesses for many.
To Kill a Mockingbird is showing at The Barbican until 25th July 2015. Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins/William Heinemann) is set to be published on 14th July 2015; you can pre-order your copy from Waterstones here.