Vermont Reads: Local Connections

05/05/11 4:50PM By Neal Charnoff
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Vermont Reads 2011: "To Kill A Mockingbird"

Kim Bent as Atticus and Libby Belitsos as Scout in Lost Nation Theater's production of "To Kill A Mockingbird"
(Charnoff) All this week, VPR has been looking at race in Vermont, as part of our collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council's statewide reading program. This year's selection is To Kill a Mockingbird.

Many events have been planned around the state to explore the novel and its themes. This month, Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater is re-staging a local production of the play, which they originally put on three years ago.   

The adaptation is by Christopher Sergel,

Like the book, the play adaptation imagines an adult Scout who functions as a narrator telling the story. 

And the play maintains the novel's careful balance of humor and drama. 

Here, the 6-year-old Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill dare each other to approach the house of the mysterious Boo Radley. 

(Dill) "You're scared.  (Jem) Ain't scared. Just respectful. (Dill) You're too scared even to put your big toe in the front yard.  (Jem) I am not. I go past the Radley place every day of my life.  (Scout) Always runnin'.  (Jem) You hush up Scout.  (Scout) I dare you!"

(Charnoff) The children's summertime games are in stark contrast to the trial of Tom Robinson, a local black man who has been accused of raping a white girl. 

Robinson has his own very different reasons to be scared.     

(Lawyer) "Tell me boy.  Why did you run away?  (Tom) I was scared sir.  (Lawyer) If you had a clear conscience, why were you scared?  (Tom) Like I says before, if weren't safe for any colored man to be in a fix like that.  (Lawyer) But you weren't in a fix.  You just testified you were resisting her advances.  Were you scared she might hurt you?   (Tom) No sir, I was scared I'd be in court, just like I am now.  (Lawyer) Scared you'd have to face up to what you did. (Tom)  No sir.  Scared I'd  have to face up to what I didn't do.  (Lawyer) Are ou being impudent to me boy?  

(Charnoff) At the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird is the relationship between Scout and her father Atticus, who is the lawyer defending Tom Robinson. 

Scout peppers her father with questions about the trial.

(Scout) Are we going to win it?  (Atticus) No, honey.  (Scout) Then why is....  (Atticus) Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.  (Scout) You sound like some old confederate veteran.  (Atticus) Only it's different this time.  We aren't fighting the Yankees, we're fighting our friends. But remember this no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home.

(Charnoff) Atticus is played by Lost Nation Theater's artistic director, Kim Bent.

Bent believes that while To Kill A Mockingbird addresses issues in a southern setting 50 years ago, the story still speaks to a Vermont audience in 2011. 

(Bent)  "It's always important to remind people how important it is to be sensitive to others, no matter what time period it is, whether it's racial prejudice or just plain bullying it really amounts to same sort of thing in a sense, I mean people not really understanding each other." 

(Charnoff) Edgar Davis of Hardwick is reprising the role of Tom Robinson, and is relishing the opportunity to again bring To Kill a Mockingbird to Vermont audiences. 

(Davis) "I think it's a perfect story in the sense that it's also translatable.  I mean very seldom do you find a story that survives going from page to stage or from stage to film.  This one does.  The book, the movie, the play.  It's all good." 

(Charnoff) Davis says that the themes of bigotry and tolerance conveyed in To Kill a Mockingbird are still relevant.

(Davis)  "People being people, I believe there are some things we will never necessarily be able to get rid of or eradicate, and so that's why stories get told over and over, whether it's To Kill a Mockingbird or bible stories from Sunday school class, I mean those stories last a long time because the questions never go away."

(Charnoff) Davis believes there are great lessons to be learned in the conversations between young Scout and her father Atticus.  

(Davis)  "When Atticus tells Scout there is majority rule, but majority rule doesn't rule your own conscience, and I think especially kids need to hear that because when you're a teenager, you're trying to fit in, and there's that temptation to join the crowd, no matter what, do what the gang's doing, and you kind of lose your way." 

(Scout) Atticus, you must be wrong.  (Atticus) How's that. (Scout) Well, most folks seem to think that they're right and you're wrong.  (Atticus)  They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself.  The one thing that does not abide by majority rule honey, is a person's conscience." 

(Charnoff) Kathleen Keenan is co-directing To Kill a Mockingbird.

Keenan says that Atticus is trying to make the jury and the townspeople see Tom Robinson as a person, and not as a label. 

She says that message remains important for the contemporary audience. 

(Keenan) "We are in the midst of that still, today, in our own country, in countries throughout the world.  Right now the nation is very polarized, and a lot of that has to do because people seeing labels and not individuals, and this play helps to remind us that you've got to took for the individual." 

(Charnoff) It was a strong theme in 1960, and remains a strong theme today.

And Keenan says one reason To Kill A Mockingbird remains so effective is because of the humanity Harper Lee brought to her creation.  

(Keenan)  "Harper Lee talks about the book in terms of it's a love song.  It's a love song for the South, it's a love song of a father for his children, for the children for their father." 

(Charnoff) Lost Nation Theater's production of To Kill A Mockingbird is being presented at Montpelier's City Hall Arts Center through May 15th

Commentator Deb Beaupre is a 20-year teaching veteran and a lifelong reader. Here she tells us why she likes the book "To Kill a Mockingbird."

(Beaupre) To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. Strange that a liberal Bostonian should enjoy a book about the Deep South.  Stranger still that an African American should like a story set in the Jim Crow era.  It is about hard truths of racism, and I like it anyway.

It's long in the way great books are, with lots of narratives unconnected to that of Tom Robinson and his lawyer.  This story has a haunted house with a creepy neighbor right on their street, wild misadventures with friends away from adult eyes, and lights out conversations where kids share what's really on their minds.

The parts of this novel I appreciate are those that have to do with the Finch family, which so resembled my own.

Poor Scout; always misunderstood, even on the first day of school when she was only trying to be helpful, and then at home, where Calpurnia's pestering her about every little thing. Reading about her, I recall the many times I got in trouble for things I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do. She and I both spent a lot of time thinking, trying to understand events and people in our lives.

When I was a little girl, my mother, like Miss Maudie, was never too busy to talk to me, listen to me or watch me do something.   Most important was that my mother was the person who always explained what things meant to me right then, when I asked, despite being absorbed in her own pursuits.  

My dad is a southern gentleman; unassuming, courteous, thoughtful. This last quality made him seem remote at times which was how Atticus seemed to his kids. Daddy, like Atticus, would sometimes take as much as a minute before responding to a query; an eternity in my young mind. Like Jem, I doubted that he could have ever been anything but an adult in an Oxford cloth shirt with a handkerchief in his trouser pocket and a pipe in his mouth.  

Having Southerners for parents, I was brought up to hold teachers and pastors in high regard, to send party guests home with a plate, and to write bread-and-butter notes by hand. I was also taught that racism existed and was hurtful, but that I was in the world, not necessarily of it. I was made of sterner stuff.

So, I am conscious of and comfortable with the Mockingbird's duality: racism; violent, cruel and ever-present and familial love; fierce, never-ending and unconditional. Both are real to me.  

My husband loves Mockingbird also. When we met, he told me casually that if he ever had a girl, he wanted to call her Scout. When I gave birth to our daughter, she had no legal name for an entire day, but was nicknamed Scout at three minutes old.

Like her namesake, my Scout pesters her older brothers for attention, loves an adventure, wonders about the world around her and is apt to fight to get her way.

(Charnoff) That was commentator Deb Beaupre, a veteran teacher.

You can find all of Vermont Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird here.

For VPR News, I'm Neal Charnoff.

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