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.”
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.’”
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.