Theatre Arts Department chair Lara Wheeler Devlin '02 has long had To Kill a Mockingbird on her list of potential plays. After the 2016 presidential election spurred discussions on a range of hot-button issues, including racism, she knew this would be the time to stage it.
But when she announced this year's production lineup in the spring of 2017, she didn't realize just how relevant the play would be.
"I thought, it'll be a great way for me to bring up current political divisions and prejudice and bias with the girls but not have it be quite so in their faces, because it's history, right? I thought I could bring up these conversations, but in the context of the show. Then over the summer I was watching the news cycle and seeing things like Tiki torch rallies, things that I never thought in my lifetime in America we would see again.
"Now I think the play is even more invaluable. It brings up a lot of uncomfortable conversations, but they're ones that need to happen—and that the girls really want to happen. So it's been a nice, safe place to talk about terrible things like racism and prejudice, and on the other side of that integrity, kindness, and compassion."
From day one, Devlin approached the rehearsal process as an open dialogue with students. They sat in circles to discuss the play's themes, their feelings, which characters they did or did not align with. Because the cast is incredibly diverse, some of the discussions turned to the personal experiences of students or their families. Dr. John Murphy—the assistant head of school for mission and identity, and a philosophy teacher—spoke to the girls about moral integrity as a way to drive home the burden carried by Atticus Finch.
Over winter break, Devlin asked the students to write reflections about the play and how its themes resonate today. Some of them read their reflections during Assembly. These are their words.
Lauren Gebreamlak '19 (Tom Robinson)
Printed in the program
This is a story of a loss of innocence and growing up, but also of ignorance and pride. A young black man is being put on trial for his life by white accusers, with what seems to be the weight of the world against him. Well into the play's preparations, I began to feel a heaviness that caught me off guard. I knew all about the play, I knew the material, but I began to realize that today in 2018, African-Americans have the same fears that Tom Robinson had in 1935. The same fears are held by the young black woman who makes forty cents on the white man's dollar; the Muslim woman who is harassed and called a terrorist; and the young black boy just walking down the street. Injustice because of ignorance. My heart felt heavy because the world is heavy. The world seems to not understand or want to understand things that are different.
I have been blessed and mostly sheltered from the racism that lay outside the safety of my home. Even so, I have witnessed my fair share. No matter how hard one may try, it seems like bigotry is unavoidable. This was my motivation, my reason for wanting to play Tom Robinson. I wanted to educate and share my experiences with an audience, especially because this subject is so sickening and provocative: racism. This show is meant to inspire many things: hope, progress, justice, and acknowledgement of the burden and the hardships that come attached to something as trivial as skin color. I hope you are moved, as I was, by Scout's awakening.
Fila Oen '18 (Maudie Atkinson)
It's important to have open discussions about race, especially in communities like Catalina where each of us is pursuing a holistic education. It is instrumental in understanding human life and the role each of us play in society. It affects each of us, whether we are at an advantage or disadvantage, privileged or marginalized, oppressor or oppressed. When we have these discussions, we bridge diverse experiences and help understand one another. It is all of our responsibilities to do this. This is why it is important not to cower from these discussions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
Jessica Almos '18 (Mr. Gilmer)
I'm here to get everyone thinking about one of the main themes in the show: inequality.
As seen in the trial of Tom Robinson and the kids' harsh judgment of Boo Radley, a big cause of inequality in the world is the misconceptions people have about others. Opinions based on misconceptions can wield a large influence on how people may view a certain person, and in many cases, this ignorance can hinder another person's life.
In today's society, we live in a world where ignorance is almost bred into American culture. In order to advance our society and move toward a safer world for all, we must all do our part to educate ourselves and move past the misconceptions we may have been taught from a young age. If we are able to do this, we can become advocates in the world to help fight the inequality that many people face because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender.
Sophia Leonard '18 (Judge Taylor) and Orlinka Mitoko-Kereere '18 (Reverend Sykes)
We would like to share our thoughts on racial injustice in the show and how it mirrors many aspects of reality.
Racism, as we all should know, is the result of the combination of prejudice and power. We see this unfold in the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird, when a black man is wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman and put on trial for his life by his white accusers.
In the 1930s this was not uncommon, yet as time went on, movements such as the Civil Rights Movement led by dedicated leaders like Dr. King arose to fight these injustices. At that time, however, only a small portion of the American population was united to invoke equality for all. Yet we see in this play something that we continuously look for in people: kindness, a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and an unwillingness to follow the status quo—believing that just because someone has a different skin color, it makes them inferior. We see those character traits in Atticus, Jem, Scout, and other important members of the cast. Today, long after the Civil Rights Movement has technically ended, we see that there are still many civil rights movements that many of us work to justify: sexism, LGBTQ rights, racism, and many more.
A very important quote that comes from Judge Taylor, played by Sophia, that still resonates in society today is: "People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for, and they have the right to make whatever decision they feel is best for their children."
This is a conversation that needs to be had in order to prevent history from repeating itself. We must continue to talk about this because this is a part of our history, it is a part of our identity—and not for the wrong reasons. It is a part of our identity because it shows what we can accomplish when we come together to initiate change. We hold so much power in our voices, and if we choose to not use them we become part of the problem.
Cayleigh Capaldi '18 (Atticus Finch)
Throughout the creative and rehearsal process, the cast, along with Mrs. Devlin, discussed themes such as racism in the 1930s; the setting of the play in Maycomb, Alabama; the characters; and the historical significance of the piece. However, it wasn't until Dr. Murphy came to talk to us about the theme of "integrity" that I began to feel the immense weight of the piece we were rehearsing to perform.
In his discussion, he focused on the character of Atticus Finch, the main protagonist of the story, father to Scout and Jem, and the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson. Dr. Murphy put the content of Atticus's character into three main categories: empathy, moral courage, and integrity.
The courage that Atticus never fails to exhibit, his relentless pursuit of truth, and his determination to always do the right thing not only earn him the respect of his children and his fellow townspeople, but it shows how his integrity serves as the foundation on which his empathy, courage, and morality are built. He has the rare ability to stick to what he believes in, even in the face of insurmountable adversity.
Having the privilege of playing Atticus Finch has truly struck me to the core. Every night, with every line I speak, I feel the immense responsibility of portraying this character with as much truth as possible, and the responsibility of conveying the harrowingly relevant message of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The messages that are conveyed through this wonderful production are messages that are as relevant today as they were when the book was first published in 1960. Each of us has a chance every day to make a difference in the lives of those around us, through our own empathy, courage, and integrity.