Last night I condemned an innocent man to death for a rape that never occurred. He will be tried, convicted, sentenced and shot dead while trying to escape his lawful captors more than a dozen times over the next four weeks. This travesty of justice happened at Theatre Cedar Rapids in their production of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and I had to hold back my tears as I sat stone faced and passive while contemplating the heinous nature of the crime we the jury had just facilitated.
Of all the plays that I have read, seen or acted in “Mockingbird” holds the highest place in my heart. I was first introduced to a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel back in the mid 1970’s when I read it as a high school sophomore and later that school year was cast as Mr. Cunningham in Ashton, Maryland’s Sherwood High School production of the show. Even though the Role of Walter Cunningham was small “Mockingbird’s” impact on me was huge.
I often state that Atticus Finch is the ultimate literary role model. He is strong, patient, determined to do what is right, modest and outwardly meek, cognizant of the rights of others and steadfast in his quest to follow The Golden Rule. Thankfully he is no two dimensional paragon of virtue but rather a man, which by definition makes him a flawed creature, replete with faults and failings striving to do the best with the lot life has given him. Atticus Finch and “Mockingbird” are so important to me, such a cornerstone of my belief in how civilized humans should act, that my first born son bears Atticus as his middle name.
I sat on the jury but I was not part of the cast. I had auditioned for this show with high hopes and great expectations of again working with TCR’s Creative Director Leslie Charipar, the company’s incredible staff and volunteers, reuniting with fellow actors with whom I have shared the stage and expanding my circle of gifted and talented amateurs who strive to be professional in their unpaid, heartfelt and moving performances.
I made it through the first round of auditions but failed to capture a spot in the cast. While I was very disappointed with my failure to be in “Mockingbird” I was also incredibly impressed with the cast my friend Leslie had assembled. As I told her after seeing the cast list, “Based on who you had audition I wouldn’t have cast me either!” As usual TCR brought a remarkably gifted group of people together and then directed them to create a moving theatrical experience.
I do not speak lightly of the cast’s talents as I have had the privilege of playing with seven of the two dozen players, count a few more as good friends and round out my community feelings by being acquainted with over half the actors. I don’t know how it could feel much more like community for me!
So when I received notification that TCR was looking to fill the jury box with volunteers I had a mixed reaction. My pride thought it a bit ironic that the only way for me to participate in my favorite show was as a mute set piece was perhaps a bit degrading but in the 1/100 of a second that it took me to reject that absurd egotistical feeling I then immediately embraced the opportunity to share the stage with my people.
Because that is who they are, my people. In no other group setting do I feel more comfortable than in the presence of theatre people. Most of us are a bit crazy, some of us as impractical as tits on a boar but we do share empathy, love and a desire to make the world just a bit more beautiful, and that’s what a community is all about.
So for ten short minutes I became a middle aged man from the Depression Era deep south as I sat with five of my friends and listened to the evidence against Tom Robinson. We heard the evidence and arguments, were moved by the tragedy that had befallen Mayella Ewell, wanted desperately to acquit an innocent man but found ourselves tied by the rigid rules of our society as well as our place in it and thus each voted to condemn rather than stand up and do what was obvious and right. It is my hope, my dream, my ambition that theatre may help give each of us the insight required to live lives that honor Atticus Finch; maybe then we will live in a world that understands the importance of being strong, patient, determined to do what is right, modest and outwardly meek, cognizant of the rights of others and steadfast in our quest to follow The Golden Rule, because that’s what community is all about.