By Janis Fontaine
It’s no easier to talk about race today than it was in 1960 when Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published, or in rural Alabama in 1936, when the novel takes place.
But conversations must be had.
To jump-start those dialogues, a group of young professionals at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre are producing the play based on Lee’s book as their summer production. Called the Youth Artists’ Chair, the free summer mentorship program matches teens and young adults, age 12 to 28, with industry professionals for one-on-one training at the state’s largest regional theater. Some also are enrolled in the theater’s two-year Professional Training Program, a combination of arts education and stage experience that prepares young adults for a career in theater.
These young thespians are juggling rehearsals with extra academics, family commitments, and part-time jobs, but some gathered on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon for a roundtable discussion about To Kill a Mockingbird’s major elements: Life during the Great Depression and the treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South.
“Race in the time period,” says Frances Weissler, 21, of Jupiter, who is directing the show.
The story is simple enough: In 1932 in Maycomb, a small, worn-out (fictional) town in Alabama, a white attorney and widowed father of two small children, is drawn into the middle of a racial feud when the court assigns him to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. The mild-mannered father/lawyer (Atticus Finch), a staunch believer in justice, makes a valiant stand against racism when he argues in court that Tom Robinson has been falsely accused.
The story has become a minor classic of American literature, in part because of its film version, released at Christmas in 1962 and the subsequent winner of three Academy Awards, including best actor honors for Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch. It routinely makes best-of cinema lists, including at the American Film Institute, where it tops its list of great courtroom dramas.
The Maltz players hope the performance will inspire people to have conversations about race, around the dinner table, at bridge club, and after church. They believe now is a time ripe for change.
Alexander Goodwin-Elam, 14, of Jupiter, who plays Jem, Finch’s young son, is one thoughtful young man playing another. He says today’s youth are more racially enlightened than earlier generations.
“We as youth see differently. We’re more evolved,” he said. “The youth are calling out the older generation.”
One purpose of art is to open doors for discussions, and To Kill a Mockingbird, specifically, provides the impetus for a discussion about race. “We in the theater always say we need to have the uncomfortable conversations,” said co-producer Madeline Gilbert, 20, of Jupiter.
But conversations about race make people uncomfortable, “so no one is having these conversations,” said Léandre Thivierge, 16, of West Palm Beach, who portrays patriarch Atticus Finch.
Léandre has given the demanding role some thought. He said the way society talks about race is still “closeted;” that people have feelings about race that “they don’t say out loud. Their fear to speak makes it hard. But we’re starting to come out of the closet now.”
So what kind of conversations should we have?
“We should have every kind of conversation. Every single notion, idea or thought should be discussed freely and openly,” co-producer Jonathan Aviv, 28, wrote in an email.
“I feel like it’s a difficult issue because we don’t talk about it,” Gilbert said. “Even if we don’t agree, we need to listen to each other. The most important part is that it needs to be a true conversation, meaning that we listen to the people around us and try to understand where the other person is coming from. You don’t have to agree to listen. The only way to have a more accepting and compassionate world is to listen and educate.”
The production offers its members a lesson in cooperation. They’re also learning that there is value in the diversity of the team, that you don’t want 10 people just like you, and to embrace, not denigrate our differences.
“What surprised me most about the play is how much its themes and messages resonate with our modern-day society, and how many lessons it can teach to those who pay attention,” Aviv said.
Gilbert agreed: “The problems of almost 100 years ago are still in the world today. Racism, human rights, gender equality.” Paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s quote that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” she says, “Injustice for one is injustice for all,” and sounds ready to fight.
“By fighting our common ignorance and jealousy, we push for equality and honesty in our society – and that is worth fighting for,” Aviv said.
The role of Tom Robinson, unjustly accused of the rape of Mayella Ewell, is played by 21-year-old Jawan Hayes of Jupiter.
“In the 1930s, it was very hard for a black African-American, male or female, to be a free citizen if they were accused of something they didn’t do. Tom Robinson was a great man and model citizen and didn’t deserve to die,” Hayes writes in an email. His character is a personification of Atticus Finch’s mockingbird – a harmless creature that does only good.
But racism isn’t just classifying people based on ethnicity but believing that there is an inherent superiority of one race over another. Alexander Goodwin-Elam says, “We need to just stop judging people as a whole,” he said. “I don’t want to have my looks define me.”
The youngest cast member, Melanie McDonald, a Tequesta 12-year-old who plays Scout, Finch’s daughter, said, “We should not discriminate against other people because of what they look like. I think we should have conversations about all races being equal.”
Léandre said society has made steps forward, but “the progress is largely illusion.” Aviv says to take a step back: “The troubles we cause ourselves and the divisions we create are illusions.”
Director Weissler says the group has been given a privilege to tell this story, but people have to listen. She looks forward to the day when people truly get the message, though in many places they haven’t yet.
“If that were true, we wouldn’t need to do the play anymore,” she said.
To Kill A Mockingbird takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Tickets: $25 adults, $20 children. Info: www.jupitertheatre.org or 561-575-2223.
The complete cast and crew
Frances Weissler (director), 20, of Jupiter
Jaynie Curzi (assistant director), 13, of Boca Raton
Jonathan Aviv (co-producer), 28, of Jupiter
Madeline Gilbert (co-producer), 19, of Jupiter
Brielle Cohen (dramaturg), 16, of Jupiter
Maura Wilson (scenic designer), of Royal Palm Beach
Ryan Carroll (lighting designer), 16, of Jupiter
Kerstin Brown (costume designer), 20, of Okeechobee
Allegra Muilenburg (costume design assistant), 15, of Palm Beach Gardens
Mia Rubin (sound designer), 13, of Jupiter
Sydney Geller (props master), 15, of Palm Beach Gardens
Colin Graulich (assistant props master), 20, of Jupiter
Gabriella Smith (production stage manager), 14, of Jupiter
Maya Arias (assistant stage manager), 12, of Jupiter
Mitchell Hockenson (assistant stage manager), 16, of Jupiter
Sophia Gonzalez (marketing director), 18, of Jupiter
Jawan Hayes (Tom Robinson), 21, of Jupiter
Léandre Thivierge (Atticus Finch), 16, of West Palm Beach
Alexander Goodwin-Elam (Jem Finch), 14, of Jupiter
Melanie McDonald (Scout), 12, of Tequesta
Luca Riley (Dill), 13, of Jupiter
Brianna Alvarez (Calpurnia), 15, of Stuart
David Williams (Reverend Sykes), 19, of Jupiter
Savannah Sebastian (Ms. Maudie), 15, of Hobe Sound
Jessica Woodard (Ms. Stephanie), 23, of Jupiter
Summer Dingle (Mrs. Dubose), 16, of Juno Beach
Molly Dolan (Clerk, understudy for Ms. Maudie, Ms. Stephanie and Mrs. Dubose), 13, of Jupiter
Spencer Landis (Bob Ewell), 18, of Jupiter
Adriana Mucia (Mayella Ewell), 19, of Tequesta
David Gaztambide (Heck Tate), 17, of Jupiter
Sebastian Rodriquez (Boo Radley/Mr. Gilmer), 12, of Palm Beach Gardens
Anthony Capizzi (Link Deas), 19, of Port St Lucie
Austin Adams (Mr. Cunningham), 21, of Jupiter
Nicholas Russel (Judge Taylor), 14, of Jupiter