I get to Monroeville on a late afternoon in May. Spring came and went quickly here, as South Alabama seems to be already experiencing the stickiness of its damp summers. I don’t mind the heat and the humidity. I actually feel released as I got out of the air-conditioned car and a pleasant, warm wind brings me the overwhelmingly intense smell of honeysuckle and almost makes me dizzy.
We drove two hours from Montgomery, down south on I-65 and then still southward on the rolling State Route 47. The scenery outside reminds me of the reasons why the state’s appellation is “Alabama The Beautiful:” infinite green fields alternate with many kinds of trees of different shades of green that make me wish I’d pay more attention to nature documentary so I could have the words to better describe them. Grazing cows punctuate the lateral landscape. Picket-fenced properties delimitate few houses and fewer farms.
We came to attend the annual theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by the local company. It’s the 20th year anniversary of the stage adaptation of the novel, but most significantly, the city of Monroeville has organized multiple events to celebrate another important anniversary: the 50th year release of Harper Lee’s book. The novel, set in Macomb/Monroeville, has sold over thirty million copies, has never been out of print since 1960 and has been translated in over forty languages.
I look up and see the white pinnacle of the County Courthouse framed in Alabama’s sapphire sky. That’s the courthouse, I think.
People smile at me and I smile back as I am taking pictures around downtown main square. Everybody seems happy in Monroeville.
Monroeville, almost 7,000 population, has, however, its depressing traits of any other rural American town: the large decaying building of a Wal-Mart, and plenty of inventive yet apocalyptic church signs welcome the visitors as they approach the town along 47.
“It’s unlikely there will be a reduction in the wages of sins.” –This one struck my imagination and attests the hardship that the congregations must be undergoing. As I begin to talk with the locals, I found that the area has been badly hit by the current economic crisis. Timber covers over 70 percent of the state of Alabama and wood products are a big part of the industry in the southern part of the state. When people stop building, other people stop cutting trees. Twenty-two percent unemployment in Monroe County and the neighboring counties, informs me Tim Vaught, a local architect and artist who considers Monroeville his second home. It’s one of the highest in the entire country, he continues. The national crisis is still hitting hard in one of the poorest states.
In 1998 Monroeville was designated Literary Capital of Alabama by the State Legislature. The town reached world’s fame thanks to native Harper Lee and her Macomb, the fictional name she used as a setting of her Pulitzer Prize awarded novel. Although Lee has repeatedly downplayed the autobiographical references in her book, the town has tried its best to take advantage of the notoriety of the novel. Furthermore, Monroeville is also hometown to another great American writer, Truman Capote, who was Lee’s best friend during her childhood and afterwards—Lee followed him to Holcomb, Kansas, while he was researching the murder of a farmer and its family, work that lead to Capote’s masterpiece, his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood.
The play begins. The first act takes place outside the courthouse. A few people in the audience are fanning off the evening heat.
It’s Macomb, 1935. The front porches of the Finches, the Radleys, Miss Maudie and Miss Dubose make up the set. In the stage adaptation of the novel, Miss Maudie narrates the story and embodies the spirit of Macomb. An antique car drives up to the stage as Atticus is guarding Tom Robinson outside the jail. A bunch of drunken white men has come to kill the detainee and only little Scout’s innocence will prevent the worst from happening by reminding Mr. Cunningham that he is a father and a family man before being part of an irresponsible, angry mob.
For the second act, the audience relocates to the second floor of the old courtroom, which was used by the citizens of Monroe County between 1904 and 1962.
As I go upstairs, I end up mistakenly climbing one more floor and find myself up in the gallery along with part of the cast: the ones who were not allowed to sit in the central rows of the courtroom—the kids (Scout, Jem and Dill) and “the colored people.” The second act is about to begin and I am okayed to stay in the balcony. The smiling usher nods at me and invites me to go and sit all the way down, past the cast, on a side bench located right above the stage. So I find myself watching the rest of the play looking down at the front of the courtroom. I don’t feel like a spectator, but as if I were an external, transcendental being who was granted the privilege to witness the trial as it is happening.
After the verdict of the all-white men jury that condemns Tom Robinson for a crime he never committed, the black women sitting on my left stand up and start to sing Let my People Go (Go Down Moses). The powerful voices of the choir reverberate in the old courtroom. They speak of the struggles that came after the novel was released, and of the longtime suffering that proceeded those.
As we leave Monroeville, I think of the many places I wanted to see in town and I decide this was a nice but too brief visit. I will be back soon. I might even bump into old Nelle Harper Lee next time, and see for myself whether she really lost her mind as the rumor in town goes.