American drama, Ayad Akhtar, Bush Theatre, Danny Ashok, Hari Dhillon, Harper Lee, Kirsty Bushell, Nigel Whitmey, Open Air Theatre, Robert Sean Leonard, Sara Powell, Timothy Sheader, To Kill a Mockingbird
Recently there were two Pulitzer-prize winning pieces in production in London, one for Literature (To Kill A Mockingbird) and one for Drama (Disgraced), which spoke to each other from opposite ends of the US Civil Rights movement and our post-9/11 world.
I found Timothy Sheader’s production of Harper Lee’s novel to be not far short of pure magic and at £30 for a really crap seat (and about the cheapest available in the theatre) money I’d’ve willingly trebled to see it again. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the price tag I would have been a repeat offender as the production floored me emotionally and was so inventive all in one sparkling package.
Several things in the way it was stage were so compelling and – to me – new that it was breathtaking. I’d seen a production of Lee’s novel before (at the Birmingham Rep in 2006, which was a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse), but that had made it into a straight play (perhaps using the available text). Sheader and his cast brilliantly incorporated the novel into the storytelling from the very beginning of the production, each cast member beginning from positions dotted around the audience in the amphitheatre-like Open Air Theatre. One by one, the cast stood up and began reading passages from the book and walked down the stairs of the theatre’s aisles and onto the stage. This, it should be noted, was done in their natural English and Irish accents (possibly Scottish and Welsh, too, but I don’t recall) and not in the dialect of the American south.
Once on the stage – which had been a totally bare stage with a black surface and only a tree as scenery, plus the few pieces of furniture that had been pushed to both sides of the stage – the cast drew the set in chalk on the floor of the stage, as if it were a playground. Houses, streets, directions were all marked out on the stage as the reading of the opening passage of Harper Lee’s novel took place. Inventive – allowing both actors and audience to use their imagination(s) and concentrate on the characters and story.
This use of the device of reading passages of the novel to fill in narrative gaps continued throughout the evening; each time an actor came onto the stage reading from the book (and they were copies of Harper Lee’s novel, although I have no doubt that they had memorized their lines and weren’t strictly speaking engaging in a cold reading), they read the chunks out in their native, English or Irish accents. One other thing really struck me about the staging and that was the fact that although the actors read passages in their own voices, when they became the characters they were playing, they launched into the Southern way of speaking – all but Robert Sean Leonard‘s Atticus Finch, who was a Northern man through and through.
I willingly admit that the great attraction to spending my weekly theatre budget on To Kill A Mockingbird was Robert Sean Leonard. Not only is he a favorite from film (and I don’t have many of those that aren’t British), I first saw him onstage in London while I was at LAMDA in 1991 (which starred Alan Alda) and had seen him on Broadway as well. (Read a bit here: Robert Sean Leonard interview)
What struck me about Leonard’s Atticus Finch was the quiet, understated way he played the character. The weight of the world on his shoulders could be seen in the way he moved – his slow gait onto the stage had confidence tinged with exhaustion – and the way he sank into his rocking chair and just stayed there. This was a man tired of the fight in many ways, but a man whose dignity and principles would not let him turn from the path he had chosen, even though he knew it might end his life – not to mention those close to him.
Reflecting on the production over a month after I saw it, it also strikes me that Harper Lee’s story – as told by Sheader and his cast through the magic of the stage – upholds the principles by which the US was purportedly founded: that all men [and women, dammit!] are created equal and (to quote Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins) that it “hurts a while/but soon the country’s/back where it belongs” – that the ideals eventually come to the forefront and vanquish the ills of society. I didn’t live through it, but it must have been very hard to believe at the time Harper Lee wrote the novel that the country would improve. She couldn’t at the time – to speculate – write a happy ending for it (although arguably she did as the children don’t get killed) where Tom gets acquitted and doesn’t get shot while “escaping” (yes, in quotes). Tom’s reality in the novel was far too viscerally “normal” in the Deep South in the 1960s, as we know all too well. Sheader’s production did not shrink from or sugar coat the novel’s darker elements – so much so that I wasn’t sure the children would escape – and yet, through the calm, idealistic centre of Robert Sean Leonard’s Finch you could sense that idealism would win out in the end. As it did to a very large extent (problematic as that legacy now perhaps is) with the 1964 Civil Rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts. Sheader’s To Kill A Mockingbird pulsated with all that is best about American ideals.
Fast forward to the 2013 Pulizer Prize-winning drama Disgraced – written by Ayad Akhtar – and that ideal is in tatters. Which is clearly also a sign of the times. (This is The Guardian‘s feature on Akhtar when the play was in rehearsals at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London.) The Bush is one of the preeminent new writing venues in the UK and Nadia Fall’s production was intense, gripping and ultimately both disturbing and challenging – and tackled race issues in the US in ways that show the scope of the trouble now goes far beyond discrimination against African-Americans.
The play traces the main character, a Pakistani-American named Amir, from the height of success at a New York law firm to complete and utter disintegration. In Fall’s production he was played by Hari Dhillon with his wife Emily played by Kirsty Bushell, who is a modern artist whose influences (Islamic art) come directly from the culture Amir has shunned – with particular vehemence when he debates religion or the treatment of women with his wife and nephew Abe (Danny Ashok), who is himself veering towards adopting fundamentalist principles due to the treatment of Muslim-Americans in a post-9/11 world that bears a striking resemblance to the descriptions of the African-American experience given by President Barack Obama in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict.
The toxic nature of racial politics in twenty-first century America came to the fore with the introduction of the play’s other two characters: Jory (Sara Powell), Amir’s African-American colleague at the Jewish-owned law firm and her husband Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), who is an art dealer promoting Emily’s Islamic-influenced art. I can’t do the complexity of the relationships and dialogue justice in a post (particularly without a script in hand), but what we had in a room at a dinner party was a white woman, an African-American woman, a Pakistani-American man and a Jewish-American man. By the time in the play that the dinner party that brings them all together occurs, Amir’s career is on the slide because he had publicly seemed to back an allegedly radical Islamic cleric – at the behest of Emily and his nephew, who stated the cleric had been falsely accused – and he was determined to drink copious amounts of alcohol. What became clear was that the African-American woman was being made a partner in the Jewish-owned law firm because Amir was viewed as the outsider; they were more willing to take on a black woman than an Asian male – with a particularly cutting epithet as Amir was in no uncertain terms (in fact, in certain heinous terms) that Muslims were now the N-words of the country.
As horrible as that moment was, it was nothing compared to the moment when Isaac and Amir face-off over 9/11 and the answer Amir gives – that he was proud on that day – was chilling. There was an icy stillness in the performances of both men at that moment and the silence could have been cut with the proverbial knife. It was raw, it was visceral and it had me gasping in pain because it brought back the memories of going to work at WGBH and hearing the news come in on the radio and then the whole horrible day unfolded and the only thing I could do was make cups of tea for The World as they put a daily news programme together under extraordinary circumstances; all I did was work in television drama. Both characters were unfair and both were right in their exchange and the whole complexity of race in a post-9/11 world forcefully hit the mark. And then Amir violently beat his wife – something he had denounced in the belief system that he had ostensibly turned his back on – when she admitted to infidelity.
What Akhtar’s play drove home in Amir’s story and that of his family and the other characters is that the melting pot of America is about to implode and that the discrimination felt by the Muslim-American community is simmering and festering, while the country ignores the issues that are driving the alienation.
The juxtaposition of these two plays in a short space of time shows how little the country has travelled since Harper Lee’s novel was written. Yet the ideals of Lee’s work placed in the context of the complexities of today also shows that America seems to have collectively abandoned the high minded principles of Atticus Finch. As was Lee’s work to a great extent, Akhtar’s play was an ugly expose of race in contemporary America – perhaps fitting in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing. But at the heart of Lee’s work sits Atticus Finch whose principles of justice and equality powerfully heal (or come close to healing) the wounds the country has inflicted upon herself. Finch is the beacon of light in the dark, ugly world. In Akhtar’s play, there is no beacon of light – they are all flawed characters who, in turn, betray any higher principles they purport to hold.
I wonder what it is about Lee’s novel that keeps it on syllabi – and thus in the theatre – in the UK. Is it the principled stance of Finch? Is it the depiction of casual racism that also permeates UK society? Is it the hope that Finch as a human being embodies that equality and justice will eventually reign supreme? Certainly the Civil Rights movement has played its part in the UK by inspiring movements here. I can more easily pinpoint what was attractive about Akhtar’s play – the issues it deals with are so deeply embedded in the immigration debate that they go unnoticed by large swathes of the Daily Mail-reading population. The fear of Asians who have become radicalized – seemingly assimilated citizens who are viewed as a terrorist threat simply because of the actions of a very few people. More importantly perhaps, Akhtar’s play tells the story of the insidious effects of racism which is equally virulent – and as such equally relevant – on both sides of the “pond”.
[For any public radio-oriented people reading the blog, this is a piece from Tell Me More on Akhtar’s play.]