“One of the problems we’re having in this country is that we have this antique vision of ourselves racially,” noted Curt Columbus, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Theatre, when I met with him to talk about Trinity’s recent productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Blues for Mr. Charlie. In some ways the vitriolic presidential campaign, with its ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” slogan, is an example of this idea in action. I wonder about the “again,” as it suggests that America is no longer “great,” as if to say that perhaps the U.S. has lost its way.
And to tease out the implications of the word “again” a bit more, I would suggest that the time being referenced is a mythical age between the end of World War II and before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Hart-Celler Act—a time when everyone knew their place. Perhaps that America was “great” for a few, but for people excluded from full participation in American democracy and citizenry—whether because of race, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, disability status, heritage wealth, etc.—the U.S. today, although imperfect, is now arguably the greatest it’s ever been.
With that as background static, I made a trip to the theatre to see a play set in mythic time and another play as germane today as it was when first produced in 1964.
I had found and read Blues for Mister Charlie several years ago, and was angered by its tale of the acquittal by an all-white jury of a white man after his murder of of a young black man (the story is inspired the real-life case of Emmett Till). I didn’t try to read To Kill a Mockingbird until I was an adult, but I knew the story as it exists in our cultural memory: black man is accused of raping a white woman; black man is then killed. Picking up the book as an adult, I quickly put it down after the first chapter; I couldn’t bring myself to go on a journey with Scout, Atticus, et al., through a nostalgic imagining of Jim Crow Alabama, especially when stories like the one told in Blues for Mister Charlie feel remarkably relevant today.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michele Alexander uses the term “racial bribe” to describe the process by which wealthier whites bribed poor and middle-class whites with a certain degree of privilege, the better to disrupt and/or prevent cross-racial alliance-building against the ruling class. And herein lays a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird: Though Atticus, to his credit, takes a courageous position in regards to the desires of his tribesmen and his children are harmed in the process, Jem, who unfortunately has his arm broken by the thuggish Robert Lee Ewell, will heal. On the other hand, Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, his young white accuser, regardless of the verdict has been dealt a death sentence by the mere accusation of rape. Whether by the murderous lynch mob or by an officer of the state, Tom will surely have to die. And he does. There is no justice. One could be led down a road of sympathy for Atticus, even reverence, because of his heroic stance in the face of the mob. But what does it really end up costing him?
Blues for Mister Charlie doesn’t bribe the audience; it doesn’t offer the audience a hero. It doesn’t allow white people to “feel good” about race in the way To Kill a Mockingbird does, as even Columbus admits. Parnell James, a white man, can’t be trusted by either the blacks or the whites. The white murderer, Lyle Britten, is shown for the goon that he is. The character of Papa D is a complex study of how black men of a certain time were expected to show deference to whites. Meanwhile the falsely accused Richard Henry, having lived in the North, is the opposite: young, cocky, and unaware of his own mortality.
Blues for Mister Charlie is the more compelling piece of theatre because the characters, black and white, both in public and in private, are all flawed, possibly but not assuredly redeemable. Baldwin doesn’t pander; he gives us people as they are, incoherent and fallible.
Columbus told me he had no interest in producing “a play that makes white people feel good about race.” To that effect, he cast the shows cross-racially and ran them in conjunction, with the intention of causing dissonance among the audience, and to make them reevaluate their expectations and, he said, “Hopefully gain a new perspective of these stories.”
I can’t speak for any audience other than myself. But I walked away with the sense that one show wanted to transport me back to an antique America set in mythic time, a place where I have no desire to visit, while the other exposed something truthful, something immediate, and something dangerous. “Make America Great Again” is the slogan of those who desire the antique America; an America in which minorities are invisible, the racial caste system is forcefully regulated, a country in which LGBTQ citizens are denied basic human and civil rights, a place of walls and fear and vague threats to ban religious minorities from entering.
I watched both these shows thinking about how difficult it is for us to talk about race in this country. We do talk about it, but seldom ever in as virulent, as combustible, and as demagogic a way as we are currently witnessing. The tragedy is that the demos are so divided, and have been so divided as to allow the rise of potential tyranny. As theatre people, how do we respond to notions of antique America? Might one way to be to retire shows like To Kill a Mockingbird, which give a glimpse at a bygone country but fail to problematize it, which fail to teach us something new—and which further narrative in which America, even when challenged by racial injustice, can only be “great” when a white man leads it?