The first week of any rehearsal period is full of table work – usually a couple of days around a table (hence the name), spent discussing the text, the world of the play, ideas and questions that the play brings up. Table work is followed by blocking and the first passes through the entire script, with the actors on their feet.
Our rehearsal process for To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Mark Cuddy, is no different. We are now in our second week, but we spent the first few days of rehearsal gathered at a table, discussing the inspirations of the play, the reasons that characters make the kinds of choices they make and choose the words they say. The cast was joined by high school students from the School of the Arts, participating in this year’s Stage Door Project. We spent a lot of that time together talking about class and boundaries.
According to Kathryn Seidel, professor of English at the University of Central Florida, “The South is about boundaries – boundaries of space, boundaries of territory, boundaries of class, boundaries of caste.” Once those boundaries are threatened, she continues, the community becomes the “final arbiter of morals and justice.”
The boundaries in Maycomb, the fictional setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, are firmly in place – the members of the lowest classes are kept in their place by those just above them, who struggle to protect their privileges from encroachment. And because the story takes place during the Great Depression, when members of every class were struggling just to get by, the characters in the play fight to hold onto their places in society with everything they have. These fights are even more clear in the book, when the story spans two years and the full cast of characters are shown in their element. In the novel, the upper-class ladies torment Scout at tea parties, and she suffers their disdain for anyone who doesn’t fit the white Southern belle mold. Families in the lower classes can’t afford to send food with their children to school, so Scout begrudgingly brings a classmate home with her for lunch. And in the book and onstage, the Jim Crow laws of the time allow whites of any class to look down upon the African Americans in their community, and to do just about whatever it takes to withhold any and all privileges from them – including access to equal treatment under the law as well as any kind of class mobility.
Some people – including not a few scholars – believe that the American Dream allows residents of this country to move out of the social class into which we are born, to reach any height we desire. Certainly that’s the story immigrants to this country were sold upon – that not only were the streets paved with gold, but opportunity was all around for the taking. A class-less society meant that everyone could achieve their dreams with just a little hard work. But does the Dream hold with reality?
While Mockingbird clearly illustrates the difficulty, if not impossibility, of breaking down boundaries, it also presents a kind of hope, specifically in the character of Scout. As Kathryn Seidel points out in her essay “Growing Up Southern: Resisting the Code for Southerners in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout’s understanding of the world shifts as she has the experiences in the story, but she does not turn into a boundary-protecting racist. Rather, she becomes a humanist, seeing people as equals. “Scout has learned that white trash mobs are still people, that Tom Robinson is a person, that Mayella is lonely, that Boo is to be treated as the delicate creature that he is.” Throughout the events of the book and play, Scout matures into the woman who, as narrator, urges us to treat people with humanity.
Certainly we can see the boundaries of social and economic classes here in Rochester, even if they are not so formally defined. How do we attempt to break those boundaries, and treat all people with respect and equality?