Bath high school students tackle racial prejudice in 'Mockingbird'
BATH — Morse High School senior Mason Davenport said he faces his most challenging role ever in taking on the character of vehement racist Bob Ewell.
He plays one of the most reprehensible characters in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," directed by drama and English teacher Kevin O' Leary. The play, set in 1930s Alabama, will be performed in the outdoor courtyard at Morse from Thursday, May 14, through Saturday, May 16. The curtain rises each evening at 6:30.
Among the scenes Davenport rehearsed on Tuesday was one in which young black man Tom Robinson was on trial for the rape of Ewell's daughter, Mayella, a charge that proves to be untrue. In summoning up the vitriol that goes with the role of Ewell, Davenport has to use the word "nigger."
Add to that the fact that among the 30 cast members, 12 of the school's 15 black students were looking on during Davenport's performance.
"It makes me feel sick, quite honestly," Davenport said afterward. "Like right now I'm still a little nauseous from doing that. It's really hard in the fact that I like everyone, so I don't want to hurt them and I also don't want them to think badly of me, and (the role) doesn't really help that, in my opinion."
Davenport was quick to acknowledge that Ewell is, simply, a jerk: "I can't respect anything about the person I'm playing."
Still, he said his own distaste for the character guides him. "The queasier I'm getting, the better I'm doing," Davenport said. "... The worse I feel, the better I'm doing."
Estina James is among the play's black cast members. On Tuesday the senior was playing the role of the Rev. Sykes.
Speaking of the experience of hearing racial slurs during the performance, James said, "In the beginning of this play it was kind of difficult to hear it, because you don't hear it a lot in Bath. But I know that they're just acting, and so it's easy to get past it; I know none of them would ever say anything like that. But I mean it's still a hard word to hear ... but it's a play that needs to be done, and (O'Leary) picked a really good cast to do it, and people who are really considerate. I know a lot of them feel sick when they say it."
The play has been in the works for about a year, O'Leary said. He called the journey from concept to stage "an amazing trip."
"We've been rehearsing and dealing with these very difficult racial issues," he added. "We talked about it a lot in the first week, that we're going to be saying a lot of nasty words to one another here, and it was as hard for my white kids to say it as it was for my black kids to receive it."
O'Leary and his student actors talked about times in their lives that they have been pre-judged because of race, sexual preference or political party.
"We've got to address these issues," O'Leary said. "I think it's important, especially now that we have a black president. He broke down that barrier."
O'Leary said he looks forward to having many black people in the audience. "There will be parents of my black students. And that will be an interesting moment, to have these black people in the audience, witnessing this play in which their sons and daughters are called the n-word, right there. It will be hard for them to watch that."
For O'Leary as a teacher and director, he knows such scenes will be difficult from both perspectives of the stage.
"I told the kids, 'guys, I'm scared, but we've got to hold each other's hands and we'll get there together,'" O'Leary said. "We have to keep remembering, keep our eyes on the prize. And the prize is a greater understanding of what it is to be human beings, and that we're all in this together."
Performances are weather-permitting. Tickets are $8 for general admission and $6 for students and senior citizens.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.