“There isn’t going to be an appeal; not now,” Atticus Finch, "To Kill a Mockingbird"
The larger-than-life main character of Harper Lee’s iconic literary work spoke to the father of the black man accused of rape. Instead of an estimate on the appeal, Atticus Finch has come to break the news that Tom Robinson is dead and there would not be an appeal “at that time.”
The appeal has come, however, countless times as subsequent generations have dealt with the tragedy and injustice of racism in American society. In many ways, the Zachary High School theater department will make its appeal public next month as it brings "To Kill a Mockingbird" to its stage.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set in a small town in the South with the innocence and perspective of youth. The passing of eight decades considered, Zachary bears resemblance to Maycomb and, on the surface, the racially-diverse cast members fit their roles. Lauren Smith portrays the white, 19-year-old accuser Mayella Ewell.
Dylan Jones, an slightly above average built black teenager with quiet demeanor, becomes the shy, soft-spoken Tom Robinson defending his honor and freedom in a rape trial. Square-jawed Joseph Howard, a budding Clark Kent, takes the role of Atticus Finch with the build of a young Gregory Peck, the actor who brought the character to the big screen and won an Academy Award for the performance.
The similarities do end, however, in Zachary High’s appeal of Tom Robinson’s conviction because these young people living in similar geographical settings have the benefit of an evolved perspective. Cast member Turner Bunch explained while he is white, he looks at that era of history with eyes educated to the prejudices of which he can’t be proud.
Bunch said if he could interject himself into the setting of the rape trial, he would see the tragedy of the dangerous, condemning stereotypes. “In this case, it’s mostly against the words of a white man — no matter who he is or what he has done — over that of that of an African-American,” he said. “I would feel ashamed over what our community is doing this for.”
Many of the black cast members, like Jones speaking the words of the accused and later condemned defendant, are aware of their connection to the era. “To me, in some ways, times have changed,” Jones said.
While Jones comments on negative, racial slurs used in the past when describing black people, he adds "now it’s just better.”
Race is a backdrop, and students like Jones and Bunch must be mature enough to interject their ethnicity into the roles while remaining objective and unshaken even as racial taunts are hurled from offstage. Zachary High drama teacher Jen Masterson said race-casting and the societal issues are not new to the school’s performances. “We had a series including 'Hairspray' and 'A Raisin in the Sun' where race was a central theme,” she said.
The productions are not picked for shock value. Masterson said the driving force for the selection of the play came from the students. “They brought it to me; I am so proud of them for wanting to do good literature,” she said.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Harper Lee since her death last year, but Masterson credits the school's English teachers for keeping the novel as required reading and inspiring the student body to become consumers of fine literature.
When a group of theater students came to Masterson with the suggestion, "What about 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' ” she said “we definitely have the talent.”
Talent and a lot of heavy lifting is required to pull off "Mockingbird." Set in the 1930s, it reflects the era, the South and aspects of Lee’s life. Lee grew up in a small Alabama town where her father was a lawyer. When Lee was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama. The case, later termed the "Scottsboro Boys Case," was highly publicized, and five of the nine men were sentenced to long prison terms.
Lee’s book, published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Two years after the book’s publication, an Academy Award-winning film based on the novel, starring Peck as Atticus Finch, hit the nation’s big screens.
Masterson, a product of the South and literature, said the ugly, painful subject matter is delivered in a literary vehicle that can carry a lot more. “It’s beautiful in a lot of ways and, if you are from the South, it’s lush and it’s rich,” she said. “I just think it’s gorgeous.”
Masterson’s lead actor sees more than societal topics and award-winning literature in "To Kill a Mockingbird." He hopes he sees himself. Howard, calling the Atticus Finch part his "dream role," could be a young Peck, but he also aspires to be a lawyer like the one Peck portrayed. “I read the book in the fifth grade when I was taking an interest in government roles and politics,” Howard said. “He seemed like the perfect role model for me; I was thinking about a career in law and Atticus Finch was a lawyer.”
“The reservation and class he had — the dignity — it really pushed me and ever since the fifth grade I tried to model myself to be more like him.”
And model himself he did. The looks come natural, but the 17-year-old has strung together interests and activities that would make Atticus proud. Unlike much of the cast, he’s new to Zachary moving here two years ago with his parents and two younger siblings from La Vernia, Texas. He jokes “Zachary is a big town compared to my small town.”
He’s a busy 11th-grader, acting in school productions, playing the Grinch at Christmastime, marching in a candlelight vigil to honor a fallen civil rights leader, adding to a poetry anthology and much more.
His place on the Zachary Mock Trial team, however, leaves him beaming with excitement. “They give us a case, and we work to prepare the case from both the prosecution and defense sides,” Howard said. “You argue your case. It’s a lot of fun.”
The local Mock Trials are organized by the Baton Rouge Bar Foundation and include three rounds of competition on the first day, with winning teams advancing to the final two rounds on the second day. Students prepare a hypothetical case and are judged by a mock jury. “I was the attorney; I got to deliver the opening statement,” Howard exclaimed breaking his calm ultra-polite demeanor.
Howard, who plans to practice international law, finds the two roles existing as extremes of each other. “I find it very funny,” he said. “The Mock Trial coach doesn’t like us to be real showy or performance-like, so I have to control my performance for Mock Trial, but Mrs. Masterson in theater is really pushing me to be really extravagant on the stand. It’s really funny to contrast the two.”
Masterson thinks the play will promote thought and inspire when it is presented April 20–22.
“It’s beautiful piece of literature,” she said. “Despite the fact that there’s a lot of ugly in the show within the show, I think there will be a lot of beauty in it.”
For tickets, visit https://zhsdrama.ticketleap.com/.