The other night we sat in the first row of the mezzanine for your evening presentation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The Shubert is a grand old theatre, in the heart of the theatre district in New York. We sat amazed. You delivered… or shall I say, dropped a culture bomb on all of us who sat there. Mesmerized by the performances, certainly; even more moved in a story line that began in the telling of the human condition by Harper Lee in 1960 at the height of Jim Crow segregation, the rise of the KKK, and the early risings of the Civil Rights Movement stirred by Martin Luther King. I was a teenager when all this was going on.
I must say, the vernacular that was certainly part of the culture from which the story was born in 1960, was uncomfortable. Good on you to make us see this spoken in southern drawl that calls us to reckon with our roots and our lingering failings. The drawl of a segregated south fell hard on our faces and in our ears. My personal recoil at the N-word, was intense. I thought about the actors who were repeating the N-word over and over to show us what it was like and how it felt to the four Black folk who were seated in the “courtroom.” I actually thought about how they all felt even performing. I thank them for their obvious resolve that we should see how all this that happened really was. I grew up in this story; it grieves me.
The pedal pump organ, like the one that was in my home church, played hymns as backdrop. No glitz or shiny. Another point of genius. Against the hymnology of the Christian faith, atrocities were perpetrated against minority persons, African Americans, first and surely, but also against a young woman abused and assaulted by her father, and a young man abused, neglected and discounted by his mother.
This show, dear Aaron Sorkin, is just the kind of message that needs to be spoken over and over again in the world until finally, we hear it, especially as we live in a time when hate is on the rise and white nationalism is being normalized from lips as high as the White House. The fact that you not only lay bare the pain, you also highlight the human pathos of comedy and tragedy mixed together just like we live it everyday. That is genius.
One Sunday during Lent I preached a sermon about the Barren Fig Tree. One of the congregation said she had never heard a sermon about manure before. Spread a little manure on the failing tree, the Gardener says. Give it three years, and if it does not bear fruit, cut it down. Apparently even Divine Patience has its limits. And the Psalmist cries out, “How long?”
I think that is what I heard in your play, dear Aaron Sorkin. Dill and Scout, Jim and Atticus certainly were calling us to consider how much longer racism will continue in our culture. How long will people mistreat and mistrust each other, especially in our differences of color, gender, age, faith, culture, political party, sexual orientation and any other of the dividing lines we stand behind to throw out barbs and spew out hate.
If every person in this country could see To Kill a Mockingbird and feel the shock of how we look in the world, we might awaken to the horror and sadness of it all. Frankly, the world seems in a very fear-filled regressive place right now. Truth has become subjective and suspicion has become the fodder of choice. Even we Christians have distorted the message of Jesus to love and welcome and become one people.
You, dear Aaron Sorkin have ripped off a scab. I think I thank you; I know I appreciate what you have done in this play. I pray all of us who see it will be changed… even a little bit.