Kerry Murphy. To Kill a Mockingbird and 2014.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  I was reminded of this when seeing the excellent production of To Kill a Mockingbird at the New Theatre in Newtown, Sydney last week.  Good literature manages to make us reflect on our own times, and challenges us to think about how we might act in difficult times.

Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is well known and is a modern classic.  The seemingly simple story of young Scout and her brother Jem, and their widower lawyer father in 1935 Alabama still resonates with an Australian audience in 2014.

The community attitudes on race we would think are unacceptable in 2014, however it was only a week ago that the Attorney-General told the Senate that there was a ‘right to be a bigot’.   A ‘rhyming Twanian’ theme would be the vilification of those arriving by boat and the increasingly harsh way they are treated, under both Labor and the Coalition.  In To Kill a Mockingbird we can feel for Scout’s father Atticus, the lawyer defending a black man on a charge of rape of a white woman.  Like young Jem, we ask how could the jury possibly find him guilty on that evidence.

In the New Theatre production, the jury is the audience and we are challenged to face and reflect on our own fears and prejudices in 2014 Australia, just as Atticus challenged the jury in the 1935 story.  How do we come out of this challenge?

Atticus tells Jem and Scout to ‘spend time in the skin or shoes of the other’ so they can understand that person. This is a challenge for us in 2014.  What if we spent time in the shoes of an Aboriginal who was discriminated against because of their race or colour, or an asylum seeker who was vilified because of how they arrived in Australia fleeing the feared persecution.   Would we so easily say there was a ‘right to be a bigot’ or that ‘illegals’ should be locked away in Pacific penal colonies?

Lee’s 1960 story of a small town trial in 1935 Alabama resonated as much with the 1960s in the US as it does with Australia in 2014.  The play was well produced and a simple and effective set added to, rather than distracted from the story.  9 year old Teagan Croft stole the show in her confident and credible Scout.  Ably supported by 14 year old Hudson Musty as Jem and 12 year old  Kal Lewins as Dill.  Lynden Jones ably portrayed the genuinely good character of Atticus the lawyer, who had to explain to his children the bigotry of the town against his client just because of his colour.  As good as Lynden was, I still think of Gregory Peck in the 1962 film.

Revisiting this timeless tale gives a chance to reflect on whose shoes we should stand in to understand them better.  It is easy to preach or pontificate about the inflationary vilification and appalling treatment of asylum seekers in Australia, but like Scout and Jem, I need to stand in the shoes of the others.   What makes people so prejudiced against asylum seekers?  Why does the Attorney-General think there is a right to be a bigot?  Understanding their position will help me better explain my position and views.  I just wish they were able to stand in the shoes of the other as well, and maybe their bigotry and fear would diminish.

Kerry Murphy is a Sydney solicitor who specialises in Immigration and Refugee Law.

The play is at New Theatre until 19 April http://newtheatre.org.au/whats-on/season-2014/to-kill-a-mockingbird/

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