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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ play shows how far we have to go in race relations

Jeff Daniels during a performance of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway. He was nominated for a Tony Award in the play that remains relevant today.
Jeff Daniels during a performance of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway. He was nominated for a Tony Award in the play that remains relevant today. Julieta Cervantes/DKC

Vironette Hall was a scrappy little girl in our fifth-grade class who could chunk a softball harder than any girl I knew. We always wanted to be on her team because she could hit and pitch and run like the wind.

In 1968, she’d been part of our class for a couple of years, having come with a small group of African American children to the white school with her brother, James, who played football with my brother.

She was funny, and I can still see her giggling, wearing a too-short dress and a sweater, likely handed down. But she was one of us, a gaggle of white girls who let her into our circle though we had known each other since before kindergarten.

She was one of us, until she wasn’t.

By eighth grade, we’d abandoned her and the other African American children in our class, when our parents moved us to an all white academy a few miles from town. Vironette didn’t understand why she couldn’t go with us, and I didn’t either, but the truth is I’d never invited her to my house to play, never knew where she lived, though I did know she lived with her grandmother.

For years, I’ve wondered what happened to her and have even cast her as a character in a novel I hope to finish one day. On at least one occasion in the past 20 years, I thought I saw her on a visit home, though I didn’t have the courage to speak. I have long wanted to apologize to her because she couldn’t go to our school — for no other reason than her skin color. That always has troubled me.

I found myself thinking about Vironette in an unexpected place a few weeks ago — while I waited for the curtain to rise for “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway in New York City.

My husband and I had planned a trip to New York to babysit our grandson, Henry. My good friend AB told me I had to see this new rendition of my favorite novel. I asked my husband if he’d mind taking charge of Henry for a few hours while I headed to the theater.

“You have a particular relationship with this story,” he said. And so I went.

Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. brings her famed book "To Kill a Mockingbird" to life on a local stage each year. The town inspired the setting for the iconic book. Lee died Friday at the age of 89. (Originally published: July 14, 2015)

Like so many people, I do have a particular relationship to the Harper Lee novel about Jean Louise Finch, an Alabama child in the 1930s trying to make sense of racial disparity in her hometown. I’m embarrassed to say I’m a latecomer to it; it was not on my high school reading list.

But when I did, I recognized so much of my own story growing up in 1960s rural North Carolina. I have a signed first edition on my bookshelf — an item that likely will be fought over by my children when I’m gone. (I’m thinking of creating visitation rights in my will so there will be no debate.)

And I named my dog Jean Louise, aka “Scout”— and good heavens, is she ever the firecracker.

So there I was in the Shubert Theater, waiting for the curtain to rise, a lump closing in my throat.

“All rise!” Jean Louise says as the play opens, and my eyes filled with tears. (Thank goodness I’d brought Kleenex.)

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Jeff Daniels and Gbenga Akinnagbe during a performance of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway. Daniels was nominated for a Tony Award in the play that remains relevant today. O&M via AP Julieta Cervantes/DKC

The play, which stars Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, is intense and heartbreaking, the dialogue so troubling and true of 1934 when it is set, in 1968 when I last saw Vironette — and today in a world so troubled by racial divisions that as a white person sitting in the audience, I felt complicit. Was complicit. There is no seated jury in the play, but every person in the theater sits in that box.

Daniels, who is nominated for a Tony Award for Lead Actor, is making the rounds on television to talk about how relevant the play is today, and it’s true. Angry mobs gather around the country shouting racial epithets at those who look different without knowing a thing about them.

But the play is changing people, Daniels says in interviews. And he can hear the weeping in the audience when he’s on stage.

The play changed me. The audience on the night I attended was mostly white, for all I could tell from my seat. And it was jarring, I’ll tell you, to hear racial slurs spoken angrily and often — words spoken in my childhood, though not in my home — from that stage.

Aaron Sorkin, the play’s author, gives voice to Tom Robinson in a way that Harper Lee did not. Calpernia, the housekeeper, speaks out, too, challenging Atticus’ beliefs in the goodness in everyone — even the racist folks of Maycomb. And how he can possibly know what it’s really like to walk around in her skin?

That afternoon I left the theater in tears, shaken by the message that we really haven’t changed much.

Almost a month later, I’m still struggling with the message and how I might rise to it.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" and other classics have caused a lot of controversy.

Susan Byrum Rountree can be reached at susanbrountree@gmail.com. She is still searching for Vironette.
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