Monroeville’s Mockingbird

50 Years after the debut of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Alabama hometown celebrates (carefully) the book that made it famous.

Article: Mike Wilson

Mike WIlson

Three tiny houses—facades, really—stand in a tight row in the courthouse square. They make up the set for the play based on the book. People come from around the world to see Monroeville’s annual production, which runs for about four weeks each spring and draws a sellout crowd of 250 every night.

Monroeville needs every tourist dollar it can get, and staging this play is the one significant thing the small town does to capitalize on its biggest draw. Nelle’s friend Reverend Butts says she is “not entirely enchanted” with the tradition—she has never attended a performance—but she tolerates it.

This is community theater in its purest form: Atticus played by a local banker, his daughter Scout by a sixth-grader from Monroeville Junior High.

The first act is staged outdoors, amid the three houses. The second takes place in the courtroom, where 12 audience members—always white men, for authenticity—are seated as jurors.

Robert Malone, a funeral director, played Tom this year. For him, the play is all about what life was like “back in the day.” The day wasn’t so far back. Malone remembers separate water fountains, separate schools, separate waiting rooms at the doctor’s office. He’s only 46.

He thinks it’s important to keep telling the story. “You can’t put the past behind you without understanding what it was like.”

Morgan Ard, the sixth-grader who played Scout, is a cheerleader, a Girl Scout, and a singer in the choir at First United Methodist, Nelle’s church. Nelle once told Morgan’s mama how pretty she is.

Morgan won’t read the book until the 8th grade, but she’s precocious. She shares her take on the story: “Scout learns that standing up for people is okay, even when people tell you not to.” She adds, “And people come together and love each other. And that’s about it.”

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The beauty of it is, it still surprises us, even after all these years. No matter how many times we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we always find something new in it.

The question, really, isn’t whether you’ve read the book. Of course you have. The question is whether you’ve read it again.

Pat Dye, former Auburn football coach, has read it twice. He didn’t get much out of it the first time, but then, he readily admits, he’s no literary scholar. So he picked it up again a few years ago.

“The second time I read it, I read it. And when I got through, I was almost, I mean, in awe, and breathless. She knew what went on and I knew what went on back in those days, and she had enough guts and enough wisdom and enough brilliance to put it on paper. For a young girl to be able to capture that, it’s a miracle.”

Through relatives in Monroeville, Dye contacted one of Nelle’s neighbors and asked to meet her. On the appointed day, he and the neighbor picked up Nelle and a catfish supper and they all dined at the neighbor’s house. Pat Dye and Harper Lee could no sooner have a peaceful dinner in public than the Lord and Bear Bryant.

They talked about football and Alabama and people they’d met. Dye said meeting Nelle was the greatest thrill he’s had since he walked down the first fairway at Augusta National. After a while, he told her what was on his mind.

“I told her, I said, ‘You know, ma’am, you ain’t smart enough to write a book like that.’ She looked at me kinda funny a little bit, but not too bad. She was looking for the next sentence. I said, ‘Ain’t nobody smart enough to write a book like that. To write a book like that you gotta write it with your heart, your soul, your guts, your passion. You can’t write a book like that with just your brain.’ ”

Nelle thought about that. “She said, ‘I never could finish another book. I started two or three more.’

“I said, ‘That’s probably a good thing. You know, if you’d written another book, I don’t think you could ever have matched the masterpiece that you wrote. And if you did write one, it might have diminished To Kill a Mockingbird. And she said, ‘You’re probably right.’ ”

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