“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner published those words in 1951, but you’d be hard pressed to make them ring truer than they do right here, right now, in America in 2016. Cities burn and families break under the strains of racial tension and violence that some have long considered dead and buried. No matter what side you come down on, you have to recognize the role that our collective past – our horrific, racist past – has played in building this very great, if very flawed, country. And the past is definitely not done with us.
That’s one of the messages that we can perhaps take from Trinity Repertory Company’s presentation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, and a concurrent, albeit limited, run of Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin. Director Brian McEleney said that he had chosen the plays long before the uprisings in Ferguson, New York and Chicago, but that the enduring themes they tackle (racism, equality and justice, or lack thereof) are strikingly important now.
“I thought it was important to take these plays on, to pick plays that addressed, on some level, the African-American experience,” reflects Brian. “I did it with a lot of humility, because that’s not my experience.”
Humility is clearly important for Brian in the presentation of this work. He emphasized that neither he personally nor Trinity institutionally is prepared or equipped to solve some of these long-smoldering issues, but that the “storytelling aspect of theatre” allows the work to be a part of a larger conversation.
“Theatre isn’t processed information – it’s not someone’s opinion. It’s not an essay. It’s not an op-ed. It’s just somebody’s story,” he says. “And one of the reasons we go to the theater is to see these stories; to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. In this particular national moment, that’s really important.”
Indeed, there will be talkbacks after every show, per usual. But Trinity’s choice to present these two pieces side by side – one, a staple of school curriculums and the other, a little-known Pulitzer winner that loosely conflates the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till – is yet another opportunity for conversation. Both are courtroom dramas entangled with questions of justice and injustice, but with very different outcomes and main thrusts – an interesting study in contrasts. Brian says that, particularly with Blues, the illusion of a post-racial society is laid bare as just that: wishful thinking.
Another wonderful component to this larger “conversation” will be taking place in classrooms across Rhode Island as upwards of 40 schools come see the presentation of Mockingbird through Project Discovery. Teachers can bring their classes in at a reduced cost, and are entitled to free workshops given by the Trinity Rep actors and teaching artists.
“The demand for this show has been tremendous,” said School Partnerships Manager and Teaching Artist Matt Tibbs. “We believe very strongly that education, and theatre in particular, has the power to stir up empathy and let these students live in the moment, walk in other people’s shoes… any chance we can get to have an open conversation about it with [these students] as a broader community is beneficial. [We’re] looking to foster conversations and provide jumping off points [as] food for thought. The time is right in the communities right now, and we need to face it.”
A lovely bit of serendipity: Brian said that their Mockingbird production (and by extension Blues, since the two share sets, as well as casts) is set in a classroom. The audiences can then “engage imaginatively” with the material, much like they would with the original novel, rather than relying upon the crutches of realistic sets.
“It’s always been my experience that if you ask audiences to leap in, they have a great time imagining a play,” Brian says.
Quite fitting, for a piece that has been a staple of curriculums around the country for quite some time – not to mention in present day Rhode Island, where a good chunk of students experience live theatre for the first time through Project Discovery matinees. But whether you’re in school on a field trip, or an adult out for a night on the town, these two plays promise to be an integral piece of some very important lifelong learning that we all must be a part of.
“Maybe it will help people think about things that are difficult to think about,” muses Brian. “It’s not going to solve anything. But we are making our contribution. And hopefully, we will do it with integrity, and humility and truth.”
To Kill A Mockingbird and Blues For Mister Charlie
March 3-April 3
201 Washington Street