“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” Thus wrote Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird. Those words are in her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
More than 50 years later they still resonate. We’ve made some progress, certainly. But racism continues to darken our lives, even if she shone light on it.
You have a chance to be moved by it again. The enduring 1962 film always awaits your attention. It was one of the very few times the Alabama author approved of any adaptation, in Texas-born Horton Foote’s Oscar-winning screenplay.
You can see this national treasure on stage at Omaha Community Playhouse. Given Lee’s constant caution, her care about giving permission, she did allow playwright Christopher Sergel to turn it into this play. Sergel was so dedicated to getting it right that he worked assiduously on revisions for 20 years, only authorizing a performance in 1991. Originally, he intended the script for middle schools and high schools, but eventually it became a popular favorite of regional theatres all over the U.S. and in Britain.
Sergel has kept the essence, which is loosely based on Lee’s observations of family and neighbors, plus something that happened near her hometown in 1936 when she was 10. The intentional focus is irrational adult attitudes towards race and class in the 1930s Deep South, seen through the eyes of children.
Lee said, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic,that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
So moving and significant is the book that, in 2007, George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States recognizing “especially meritorious contribution” to national interest, world peace and “public endeavors.” Three years later President Obama awarded Lee the National Medal of Arts.
As for Sergel’s other scripts , his adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio was seen on Broadway. He also wrote adaptations of Cheaper By the Dozen, Up the Down Staircase, Meet Me in St. Louis, Get Smart and Fame. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/12/obituaries/christopher-sergel-publisher-of-plays-and-playwright-75.html.
“Summer was our best season,” Lee wrote; “it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape.” Summer is still with us. Not parched. But alive. As is To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs Aug.19-Sept. 18, Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $22-$40. www.OmahaPlayhouse.org