Thursday, September 05, 2019

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (the play)

Last week, before we entered full Tennis Fan Mode, we spent the day playing New York City Tourist. We took a delightful stroll hike through NY's Central Park, marveling at the shear diversity of the place. We ate astoundingly good cake pops from William Greenberg Deserts and of course, took in a Broadway Show.

The show was To Kill a Mockingbird and it was quite good.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in High School and have vague memories of enjoying it. In fact, one its quotes has stuck with me all these years:

“Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food.”

Most of the plot, however, has long since been lost to me. This meant that I went into the play expectation free.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame was responsible for adapting the book to a play, and you could see his fingerprints all over the production. For one thing, the quick and witty dialog felt right out of a West Wing episode. Between the actors' accents, the quick pace of the play and the inability to pause and rewind the scene, I found myself literally on the edge of my seat trying to follow along. Every time the audience erupted in laughter I'd mentally scold them for making it harder to follow the dialog.

Sorkin also deployed another device that I enjoyed from the West Wing: he had the characters openly discuss some key bit of information in a way that makes you, the viewer, think you're supposed to understand it. And yet, you don't--at least not completely. Ultimately, the explanation is delivered to you as the story closes out. For a period of time the viewer is left in mental limbo. While it seems strange to praise a writer for creating confusion, I think it demonstrates a degree of trust in the audience. It also makes for an ending that gratifyingly snaps together.

As for the content of the play, when the first act closed out, all I could think is: Wow, this is so a commentary on the era of Trump. Though I wasn't exactly sure why that was. As the play finished and I attempted to process what I'd just experienced I found this same thought coming back to me again and again.

I'm sure Harper Lee wanted me to wrestle with questions about the need to "crawl around in someone's skin" before we can understand him or her; or how our past conflicts can continue to haunt us; or how can we make a just and equitable society from one so unjust. Yet, I kept coming back to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

I think the connection boils down to this statement uttered by Atticus in the play. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Surely the people of this town wouldn't sentence a black man to die for a crime he obviously couldn't commit... Would they?

And of course, they do. Given perjured testimony and a healthy does of bigotry, the jury is all too willing to ignore facts and send an obviously innocent man to his death. It's exactly this lying and favoring what feels right over facts that's a hallmark of the Trump administration.

We saw this when Trump claimed a caravan of migrants was a dangerous invasion. We saw this when Trump claimed an investigation into Russian election interference was a hoax. We saw this when Trump claimed millions of people voted illegally. And we've seen it countless other times as the president continues to repeat lie after lie.

In this context, To Kill a Mockingbird is a less about wrestling with a racist past, and more a cautionary tale of what happens when lies and wishful thinking replace facts and reason. Like the book 1984, its plot has become all too prescient.

Politics aside, the play really was well done. If you have the chance to catch it, you should.

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