Domino Theatre takes on Depression-era classic

Race and injustice are the talk of the town in To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird opened at Domino Theatre on Jan. 16.
From Domino Theatre's website

An American classic from the early 1900s continues to inspire and provoke audiences—doing so right here from Kingston.

Domino Theatre’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird opened on Jan. 16 and will play until Feb. 1. Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this version of the story is a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. Racial tension and discrimination divide the town, parts of which—the courthouse included—are still segregated.

The characters in the play represent a range of ideologies, some more tolerant than others. Atticus Finch, one of American literature’s most beloved and highly regarded characters, is a do-gooder through and through. Mentioned on multiple occasions throughout the play, he’s as honest and righteous in the courthouse as he is in everyday life. He defends the wrongly-accused Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t hesitate to consider that defending a Black man might cause his neighbors to turn on him. 

Comparatively, Bob Ewell, father of the young woman who is supposedly assaulted by Tom Robinson, is hateful, ignorant, and dishonest. He represents the worst of Maycomb and wants Robinson to suffer solely because of his race.

As a demonstration of the intense, vulgar, and vicious racism of the time period in the Southern US, many characters use the n-word throughout the play. Though it’s used in both the novel and the film adaptation, it caught audience members off-guard regardless, clear through audible gasps and swivelling heads.

Producer Dylan Chenier said in an interview with The Journal, “No matter what play you do, you can’t really come in and make changes because you’re purchasing a license from a company that want you to be true to the script that was written by the playwright.”

Knowing that the language is offensive and could seriously harm members in the audience and on the cast, Chenier stated that “Backstage, we tried to foster a very inclusive environment.”

Chenier also acknowledged the need to be aware of the theatre’s racial culture, both presently and moving forward.

“From my own experience, theatre in Kingston tends to look very similar. It’s very white. I think, in Domino, what we tried to do with this play is showcase more of the diversity that is in a city like Kingston, and not just have one race represented in every play we do,” Chenier said. “I think this is an important stepping stone in trying to be a bit more representative of what Kingston really looks like.”

By purchasing the controversial script, the cast was required to say those lines including derogatory terms despite varying comfort levels. The choice to use the n-word so often (mostly spoken by white characters in tense, angry exchanges) risked ostracizing the cast from the audience or being seen as validating the use of hate speech.

The racist ignorance prevailing in this small Alabama town is what primarily drives the play’s plot. This is what made the use of derogatory terms effective, if extremely uncomfortable. Every time the n-word was spoken, Tom Robinson’s danger of facing conviction felt realer than ever. The courtroom scenes posited the crowd as members of the jury, facing the audience, pulling us into the drama, and holding us responsible for Robinson’s fate. When he was named guilty, we were accused of being the ones who decided it, although there was no audience participation.

Atticus Finch teaches his daughter Scout early in the play that she should never judge another person until she’s stepped into their shoes. Forcing the audience to act as members of the jury made each of us practice Atticus’ life lesson. We were thrown into the skin of spiteful racists, and we condemned a man to death. 

Domino Theatre’s skilled production of the classic story made it near-flawless, despite my personal objection to the language used—though I understand their legal obligation to use it. The performances were impressive, and the actors’ realistic Southern accents transported the audience into Maycomb.

Prior to seeing the play, Gregory Peck was the only portrayal of Atticus Finch I thought the world needed. However, after seeing Donald Mitchell take on the role, I’ll reconsider. Every movement and every line was composed and dignified, reinforcing the sense of virtue that makes Atticus Finch an iconic American presence.

Chloe Rioux as Scout Finch held her own amidst the high tension and drama in both acts. During a scene when she challenged a lynch mob, her innocence dissipates the crowd’s anger, forcing them to disband. Rioux proves herself an equal to all the other actors on stage, commanding attention and owning her place on stage, even as one of the smallest among them. 

Zhyon Headley’s portrayal of Tom Robinson was brief but moving. His lines were mostly confined to the courthouse, when his character was called upon to defend himself against the false accusations. Headley delivered his lines genuinely, as if pleading for his own innocence. At the end of the trial, when the verdict was announced, Headley was the only one left on stage. The lights dimmed and a spotlight shined on him, casting shadows across his body which gave the appearance of prison cell bars, as he sang a solemn song.

Every actor captured every beloved aspect of the classic story and gave the performance the seriousness and weight it deserved.

On the way out of the theatre, two women from the audience leaned close together, and one said, “Those are some very talented actors.” I silently agreed with them. 



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