To Kill a Mockingbird Brings its Message to the Kennedy Center

Most of the time, Charlie McCorvey is a County Commissioner in Monroe County, Alabama, and a teacher at the local high school. But for several weeks every year, he adopts another persona. He becomes Tom Robinson, the doomed black sharecropper in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

For the past ten years, the residents of Monroeville, Alabama – the real-world counterpart of the book’s Maycombe – have staged a two-act adaptation of the play at the courthouse in town. So universal is the message of the book that they’ve also performed it by invitation in Jerusalem and in England. It celebrates its tenth anniversary with a limited run at the Kennedy Center from June 14-17.

The setting of the novel is the fictional town of Maycombe, Alabama in 1935. Tom Robinson, a black farmer in the isolated, rural town, is accused of beating and assaulting a white teenaged girl. He’s defended by Atticus Finch, a white lawyer. Even though Finch proves Robinson’s innocence, the all-white, all-male jury finds the sharecropper guilty. The book is an indictment against prejudice and a tribute to those who spit against the wind by standing for their principles.

No actual incident like that occurred in Monroeville, but when the novel was released, and residents recognized the descriptions of their town, they weren’t sure how to react. Over time, though, they’ve grown proud to be the place where Atticus made his stand. In addition to the play, several murals on buildings around town illustrate scenes from the book, and a self-guided walking tour steers visitors to some of the places highlighted in the novel.

Were it not for the book, Monroeville would be unremarkable. It is one of the hundreds of small communities dotting the southern landscape. There’s the town square, dominated by the courthouse and surrounded by small, mom-and-pop businesses. Old trees shade the residential streets. Folks call to each other and wave from passing cars. It’s small-town
America preserved. The fast-food outlets and chain stores are banished to the four-lane highway leading into town.

Visitors, however, recognize the courthouse from the movie, which won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus. The two-story, red brick edifice with its distinctive white cupola rises over the town. The official legal activities have moved to a larger, more modern building elsewhere. The courthouse is now home to the Monroe County Heritage Museum whose Director, Kathy McCoy, wrote the play.

When she came to town ten years ago, McCoy was startled by the number of people who visited Monroeville and where they were from. “We see visitors from as far away as Japan and South Africa.” They want to stand in the courtroom where Atticus Finch fought for Tom Robinson’s freedom and walk the lanes searching for Boo Radley’s house.

Capitalizing on the economic and tourism potential, McCoy wrote her adaptation. The first few years, the cast sold tickets door-to-door and begged friends to attend. Now, the two-weekend run each May is sold out by early January, and there is a long waiting list for tickets.
All of the performers are local people, which is where Charlie McCorvey comes in.

“I was drafted, really,” he explains when asked how he won the role. McCoy auditioned two other men for the part, but wasn’t satisfied. Other cast members in the nascent production suggested McCorvey. McCoy tracked him down, handed him the script, and walked away.

“That was a Tuesday,” McCorvey recalls. “Rehearsal was on Thursday. All of the other roles had been cast, and everybody else knew their parts. I read the script about five times and put the prompts on a tape. And I played that tape every chance I had.”

While other actors trade off performances during the annual production and other people have filled other roles, McCorvey was the first, and only, person to play Tom Robinson. His upbringing helps him get into character.

“I grew up in a different time. Those were the cotton field days. I was one of twelve kids. I remember taking eggs to town to barter for flour and sugar and things we didn’t have. There was a fair amount of discrimination. We were taught that you don’t fight back and you don’t get disrespectful.”

Even though this was the era when blacks did not have their own high schools, McCorvey’s parents pushed their offspring to achieve. For him, it meant going to Hope College in Holland, MI, then teaching in New York and Philadelphia before returning to Monroe County. He’s enjoyed a successful career. But when the curtain goes up, he’s transported back to those other days.

“I’m not Charlie the Commissioner and teacher. It’s 1935, and I’m a farmer.”

Much of the time, he stays aloof from the rest of the cast when he’s backstage. “I put my mind back to that time and what it must have been like. I look out the window and picture Tom looking out the window. I turn the cars into buggies and picture chickens on the courthouse grounds. He was afraid. He knew that in court, he wouldn’t be treated fairly.”

While set in the segregated South, the underlying theme of “Mockingbird” – the fight against injustice – resonates with audiences around the world. Atticus Finch’s decision to take the unpopular stand in defending Robinson is one that people like to think they would make in the same situation. The cast was invited to perform in Israel as part of the Jerusalem 2000 celebration. The show was also staged in England as part of a seminar on southern culture.

“We are always well-received. It never ceases to amaze me. In Jerusalem and England, the people are so well-read and literate overall, that they really appreciated the book.”

He is surprised, though, that not that many African-Americans attend the play. “I understand when less-educated people don’t attend theater. It’s not something that’s part of their daily life. That’s true of both black and white. But I don’t understand the point-of-view of the educated minorities. There’s an attitude that we should forget this happened.”

That rankles McCorvey. “It’s the old saying, ‘If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.’

Some groups object to the play’s strong language and the openly hostile racism displayed by the characters. It was deemed so ‘politically incorrect’ that the principal in Baltimore refused to allow the school’s drama club to put on the play.

That’s the wrong reaction, says McCorvey. “It’s important to keep the play as authentic as possible. It might offend some people, but that’s the point. It’s 1935, not 2000. To get the message across, we need to keep the scene and the tone of the times.”

“None of us are proud of that part of our history, but we can not forget it. It needs to be taught.”

To Kill A Mockingbird runs from June 14-15 at the Kennedy Center. The June 14 and 15 performances are sold out. There are still tickets available for the 7:30 performance on June 16, and both the 2:00 and 7:30 performances on June 17. Tickets are $40. The Kennedy Center box office number is 202-416-8000.

(This was originally published in the Afro-American News)