VOL I: Issue 2
AISLE SAY, TORONTO
NIGHTWOOD THEATRE presents
Written and directed by Audrey Dwyer
Featuring: Don Allison, Matthew Brown, Carolyn Fe, Natasha Greenblatt, Andrew Moodie, Meghan Swaby
on stage at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre
Played January 12 through February 4
THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL presents
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel and based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Featuring: Jonathan Goad, Irene Pool, Mathew G. Brown, Tim Campbell, Jonelle Gunderson, Randy Hughson, Sophia Walker, Joseph Ziegler, Marion Adler, Peter Bally, Déjah Dixon-Green, Jacklyn Francis
Now playing through November 8 at the Festival Theatre
Reviewed by Robin Breon
Posted August 13, 2018
The year 2018 began by putting To Kill A Mockingbird on my mind.
Nightwood Theatre’s premiere presentation of Audrey Dwyer’s excellent play, Calpurnia, gave us a thoughtful unpacking of the racialisms inherent in To Kill A Mocking Bird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel published in 1960 and forever after enshrined within the English literature reading lists of many high schools throughout North America. Dwyer’s critical interrogation of the text elevates Calpurnia, the house servant of Atticus Finch, into the title role of this contemporary look at race, class, gender and intersectionality that takes place in the upper class neighborhood of Forest Hill in Toronto.
Purposefully provocative and didactic, the play transforms the strong, silent mammy role into an articulate, outspoken and challenging critic of contemporary society. The fact that Dwyer is able to do this with equally strong doses of humor, empathy and pathos is much to her credit. The play is short at 90 minutes and I think it would be unfair to give away the plot line here with a detailed narrative – better you should see it, if it gets a remount near you, or buy the script and read the play.
Meghan Swaby as Julia, gives a joyful and passionate portrayal of a young writer who wrestles with the same questions and problems as did her Black women predecessors – playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress to name two. Matthew Brown, plays Julia’s brother, Mark. He is an aspiring young lawyer who questions whetherJulia can write honestly about race as a working class issue when she herself has limited life experience being from the upper professional class.
Natasha Greenblatt (Christine), is his white fiancee with just the right amount of liberal cluelessness and guilt while the multiple award winning actor/playwright/director, Andrew Moodie as Lawrence, a federal court judge, can exert just the right amount of gravitas when needed. Don Allison as James, is the senior lawyer who Lawrence is pressing to hire his son, Mark, at a dinner party in their Forest Hill home that goes terribly awry. As the dishes are being cleared, it is the perfectly cast Carolyn Fe as Precy, the cook and house cleaner (the modern day equivalent of Calpurnia), who allows us to connect the dots in this not uncomplicated play about aspiration and altercation.
Interviewed in the press prior to the opening of To Kill A Mockingbird at the Stratford Festival, the director Nigel Shawn Williams said he was “hesitant” when Antonio Cimolino, the Festival’s artistic director, first asked him to direct the play.
Williams might well have wondered why this play and why now? And why ask me to direct? He is the first Black person in the Festival’s history to be given an opportunity to direct a play on the main Festival stage although SF artistic director Richard Monette (1944-2008) can be credited with breaking the color barrier in this particular job classification when he hired Djanet Sears to direct her own play, Harlem Duet, at the Studio Theatre in 2006. Now here we are twelve years later with another small step forward.
Williams’ apprehension was undoubtedly increased by the fact that he had done his dramaturgical homework that covered the novel’s transition to film two years after its publication. The stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel – which came much later – was originally envisioned for community theatre and high school drama groups because of the book’s huge popularity and pride of place within the curriculum canon at both the secondary and post-secondary levels. It still sells about a million copies a year!
As the story goes, Mr. Sergel’s adaptation, became a lifelong obsession with the writer. He worked on it for over twenty years while also serving as president of Dramatic Publishing company. Eventually, the project made it to the stage in 1991 when it premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. Mr. Sergel died of heart failure at his home in Wilton, Connecticut, two years later. Today, his script survives and has found its way onto many North American regional stages, including currently, this Stratford Festival production.
Williams’ first thought was to adapt Sergel’s creaky script even further. Although his work ethic was willing, Harper Lee’s estate was not. In fact, the reclusive Lee, while she was alive, was not at all that supportive of Mr. Sergel’s initial importunement and it was not until the idea of a stage play was sold to her as a once a year project in civic boosterism that might attract the tourist trade to her real-life home town of Monroeville, Alabama, that she finally relented and let the project go forward. The play is still done there in the spring of each year for gatherings of the faithful (see https://alabama.travel/upcoming-events/to-kill-a-mockingbird-theatrical-production).
Currently yet another adaptation is being undertaken by Aaron Sorkin (which Lee’s estate also initially fought). This version will receive it’s Broadway premiere later this year with Jeff Daniels in the lead role as Atticus Finch.
But the literary debate around the fictional life of “Scout” Finch and the real life of Harper Lee and her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, continues on with the facts of their life increasingly overtaking the fiction. Joseph Crespino’s book, Atticus Finch, The Biography (Basic Books, 2018) is the latest voice to enter the debate.
This all brings us back to Nigel Shawn William’s well founded “hesitations” when he undertook to direct the play for the SF this season. His first directorial inclination, to use an opening montage of documentary news footage from the 1960s civil rights movement as a didactic element that helps to set the chronology of events in flashback from the 60s to the 1930s, was a good one. It sets the tone of the play very well, unfortunately it can do nothing about the pace. As soon as the older Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Irene Poole) is tasked with the actual words of Sergel’s script, things start to bog down. William’s “freeze frame” which stops local townsfolk in their tracks while Scout explains to us who they are, doesn’t help to move the clumsy exposition forward at the top of the show.
This production is fortunate to have strong actors from the Stratford company throughout. I will confess up front I have been a big fan of Jonathan Goad for many years ever since he appeared in Studio 180’s production of The Laramie Project directed by Joel Greenberg in 2003. As Atticus Finch, he is the opposite of Gregory Peck’s lumbering baritone stentorian in the film. Here he is more an everyman and as such is much more believable.
Randy Hughson plays the lumpen southern redneck, Bob Ewell and Jonelle Gunderson plays his daughter, Mayella Ewell, who falsely accuses a local Black man of raping her. Mathew G. Brown plays Tom Robinson, the Black man in question who does what he always must do in this story – sit mostly silent with all the dignity he can muster until fate finally overtakes him. Sophia Walker’s Calpurnia is allowed more of a critical gaze than usual, but there is just not a lot built into the role that would allow her to do more. Joseph Ziegler is suitably judicial as Judge Taylor.
Clara Poppy Kushnir as the young Scout, Jacob Skiba as her brother Jem and Hunter Smalley as the next door neighbor, Dill, are all superb in their roles. Their spirit and enthusiasm lift the show whenever they are on the stage. I must add here, for this performance, I sat in the last row of the balcony and many times was unable to hear the older actors audibly. I actually rented one of those enhanced listening devices at the intermission for the first time in my life. Not so with the kids. They projected like pros and easily hit the back of the house with no problem.
It is unfortunate that the Stratford Festival didn’t partner with Nightwood Theatre and include the creative team behind Calpurnia to participate in the current season. In fact, a Studio Theatre run for Calpurnia in tandem with To Kill A Mockingbird on the Festival stage would have been a great exercise in the dialogics of race for the Festival. As I write this review, Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman is opening in movie theaters across North America. For the Stratford Festival to still be peddling this old chestnut of a play as an example of their currently awakened state of social conscience is really a bit sad.
As for Nigel Shawn Williams – he has done good yeoman’s work here and having seen his productions at Factory Theatre and elsewhere over the years, both as director and as actor (an excellent Claudius in Tarragon’s Hamlet last season opposite Tantoo Cardinal’s Gertrude), I consider him to be one of the finer directing talents working in the country today. Hopefully the Stratford Festival will have another assignment for him next season that brings his work back to the main Festival stage.