Each day in the rehearsal room, our production of To Kill a Mockingbird gets more nuanced, more complete. This past weekend, the acting ensemble was enhanced by the Teen Chorus, a group of Rochester-area youth chosen to represent our modern audience. Like the novel, the play adaptation is narrated by Jean Louise Finch, and according to director Mark Cuddy, “she is out of time in this story – she’s the adult Scout, looking back on her childhood, in the 1930’s.” The Teen Chorus takes that one step further – and acts as stand-ins for our contemporary audience – and for the thousands of teenagers who read the book each year. The play brings the book to life, and our production, the Teen Chorus gains a better understanding of the story by becoming part of it.
According to Cuddy, “The Teen Chorus was inspired by the fact that we’re producing this play in 2016 – I didn’t want the production to feel like a slice of history. It’s really related to so much happening in our world today.”
The relevance of Harper Lee’s story forty-six years after its publication should probably be disconcerting. Today, our jails are disproportionally filled with black men. In a 2012 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found a disturbing correlation between the makeup of prison populations and the racial makeup of juries. According to the authors, “in cases with no blacks in the jury pool, black defendants were convicted at an 81% rate and white defendants at a 66% rate. When the jury pool included at least one black member, conviction rates were almost identical: 71% for black defendants and 73% for whites.”
In addition to the racial inequities in today’s criminal justice system, Mockingbird speaks to our current social climate. Sadly, there are countless examples of intolerance in our country today: the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, resulting in the Black Lives Matter campaign; the protests over racial discrimination at the University of Missouri and on other college campuses; and the shooting of worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston and the ensuing debate over the Confederate flag are merely three such incidents. Harper Lee issues a call to action: through her moving story of the Reconstruction South, she urges us today to stand up for what’s right and treat all people with fairness and respect.
The Teen Chorus brings this story set in 1935 (and published in 1960) into our present day through their witnessing of events in the story. “In the theatre,” says Cuddy, “the idea of a witness is powerful – it’s a tradition that goes all the way back to the Greek chorus. And it lends power to the situation – any time you have a witness to an event, that event becomes even more impactful.”