Mockingbird

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

Monroeville, Alabama—the middle-school gymnasium smells like one. This old wood floor is about the age of my late granddaddy. It creaks.

I’m watching a rehearsal for a community play. Atticus Finch is hugging his children in the final scene of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The kid-actors fidget between takes. They’re an energetic bunch, just freed from school an hour ago.

“Cut!” yells the director. He calms the rowdy.

Welcome to town—a place with a little over six thousand folks. Here, you’ll find tractor dealerships, barbecue joints, a Piggly Wiggly, a pulp mill.

And, an abandoned middle school—which is where I am tonight.

This is the twenty-sixth year the community has put on this play. It started as a way to raise money for courthouse renovations.

It turned into something else.

“We’ve gone all over the cotton-picking world,” says Miss Connie—wearing a church-lady hat and white gloves. “Hong Kong, England… We’re about to go to Ireland. It’s funny, I guess everybody wants a taste of Alabama.”

I guess.

When the cast isn’t bringing Lower Alabama to the world, the world comes to Monroeville.

“It’s wild,” says one cast member. “During April and May, we get visitors from Europe, Japan, and Canada to see this thing… Guided tours, busses, crowds… Craziness.”

The city turns into a downright feeding frenzy for anyone who’s never sipped sweet tea, seen shotgun houses, longleaf pines, or heard gospel choirs.

“Moment tickets go on sale,” Miss Connie says. “We sell out in three hours. Celebrities even come to town. Last year, we had Katie Couric.”

My cow in the morning.

“Harper Lee made our way of life famous,” she goes on.

Maybe. But these actors are the furthest thing from famous. They are insurance salesmen, steelworkers, funeral-home directors, policemen, mill-workers, middle-schoolers, grandmothers, attorneys, and preachers with accents so thick they sound like your daddy.

Director Stephen Billy helps children into stage-positions with an easy touch. He’s good at his job. They tell me he’s been acting in this play since childhood.

“This story is in my blood,” he says. “Just how I grew up. When they asked me to direct, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m coming home.’”

Home.

As it happens, that’s what this thing is. And this hometown cast rehearses long hours to keep it that way. They laugh, gossip, and even sing together.

This is no play. This is a snapshot of small-town living—something which is dying in America.

Maybe that’s why this town is so famous. And perhaps that’s why folks come from four corners of the globe just to see a place where log trucks still run the roads. Where Holiness churches pepper highways.

Where women still wear church-lady hats.

“We ain’t much,” says Miss Connie. “This is just a bunch of ordinary people trying to put on a nice show with a really good message.”

The hell you say. It’s a lot more than that.

This is Alabama.

18 comments

  1. Mary Ann Stiles - March 15, 2017 3:30 pm

    That’s why I love my sweet home in Alabama. We get that a lot in Auburn too. They come for a visit and end up staying!

    Reply
  2. Sam Hunneman - March 15, 2017 4:04 pm

    Let’s hear it for theater!

    Reply
  3. Michael Bishop - March 15, 2017 5:18 pm

    Just about everyone who’s read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or seen the movie, thinks they grew up in Monroeville or its “fictional” facsimile, or earnestly wishes they had. And why? Because it embodies or evokes our longings for justice and simple human decency, and if you don’t want or hope for those good things, you’re so much less than you think you are that you really don’t belong much of anywhere.

    Reply
  4. FRANK ROBERTS - March 15, 2017 7:10 pm

    If you happen on Monroeville again, oh Hell you have to happen on Monroeville again. You have to so that you can spend some time with my very good friend, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Jr., retired Methodist minister, almost from birth to her passing a close friend of Harper Nelle (grandmother’s name was Ellen, spelled backward it is Nelle) Lee, a frequent guest on The Protestant Hour….but that’s enough. He lives across from Monroeville Methodist Church. Tell him that I gave you his name and this stuff about him. He epitomizes the ocean, when it is said, “that all rivers flow to the sea.”

    Reply
  5. larry wickman - March 15, 2017 8:19 pm

    Really, Katie Couri showed up , give me a break….I would cancel the show if she showed up….just sayin!

    Reply
    • FRANK ROBERTS - March 16, 2017 6:48 pm

      I totally agree with Mr Wickman. Katie C. is competing with Jane F. (don’t like to say their names) to be the most unwanted.

      Reply
  6. Judy - March 15, 2017 11:13 pm

    Very cool!

    Reply
  7. Nita Stacey - March 16, 2017 12:42 am

    Thank you for coming to our town! Great essay about Monroeville, the hard working people who live here and have so much pride for our little play. Would loved to have met you just to tell you how much your stories touch me.

    Reply
  8. Cherryl Shiver - March 16, 2017 11:17 am

    WOO HOO !!!! Almost Heaven, there isn’t anything like Bama roots, ask me and I will tell you.

    Reply
  9. Jackie Garvin - March 16, 2017 8:34 pm

    As an Alabama expat living in Florida, I love to read stories about home. Even though we moved from Alabama 30 years ago, it still is, and always will be, my home. Thank you for sharing your heart and love of all things Southern.

    Reply
  10. Linda - March 17, 2017 2:29 am

    Seeing the Monroeville townsfolk perform that play each year is worth a drive from anywhere. I loved it.

    Reply
  11. Emilie - May 16, 2017 11:50 am

    Thank you for your wonderful stories, and thank you for your visit to Monroeville. It’s a great small town, and we’re all very proud! The locals enjoy the play just as much as our visitors. We can even hear it from our back porch!

    Reply
  12. Deanna J - May 16, 2017 12:33 pm

    Sweet Home Alabama!

    Reply
  13. Sue Thomas - May 16, 2017 2:51 pm

    My cow in the morning!!! Giggling like a school girl!!!

    Reply
  14. Linda - May 16, 2017 4:23 pm

    The only event I’ve encountered that’s comparable to this is the Passion Play, performed every ten years in Oberammergau, Germany, also done entirely with local townsfolk. But Mockingbird is different and, in my opinion, better. It’s not an extravaganza. You feel a part of it and come away with a warm feeling and a smile. It’s a wonderful experience and well worth the trip from anywhere.

    Reply
  15. Latrelle Mann - May 16, 2017 5:33 pm

    Sounds great to be in the mist of all these dedicated small town people, cause guess what? I’m from a small town in Ga. My husband is from Al. The Beautiful. The whole story about how the play got started and the fact it’s gone on all these yrs. with one person performing every year. Would like to see the play. He has to be great considering all the folks that have attended From other countries. Have a ball ya’ll. Till we meet. Latrelle mann

    Reply
  16. Cathy - May 18, 2017 1:30 am

    I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach Harper Lee’s novel for the past 26 years, and the even more amazing opportunity to take students to see Monroeville’s production on two occassions. Every Southerner should try to make it to see this hometown show off their literary heritage.

    Reply
  17. Mignon Watson - September 26, 2017 6:35 pm

    Loved his books

    Reply

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