At the end of a stretch of winding, twisting country lanes in rural central Alabama is a plaza much like that of countless other small American towns.
Except it’s not just any other square. To be the square where Alabama’s legendary writer Nelle Harper Lee spent the summers of his childhood and became inspired to write her iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning book “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is the epicenter of southern literature and now serves as a time capsule to long ago, when Scout Finch saw her dutiful father, Atticus, fight for the truth and the rights of all.
Serving as the plaza’s core, the old Monroe County Courthouse was opened in 1904, 22 years before Lee was born and nearly six decades before the adventures of Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo Radley became intertwined with American literature. . It still towers over the countryside and now serves as a museum and setting for productions of the play “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which has become a sign of spring at Lee’s home in Monroeville, Alabama.
Those productions — which run through May 21 this year — have become a mainstay in Monroeville over the past three decades and have been praised by Auburn University professors for bringing Lee’s story to thousands of visitors from far and wide and the legacy of the cherished prize-winning novel. Presented by The Mockingbird Company’s troupe The Mockingbird Players, this spring season’s episodes will be directed by Monroeville-born Carly Jo Martens, who once played Scout. Most of the play’s performers are part-time actors, and the majority have ties to the city of approximately 5,800 residents.
Act I of the stage production takes place outside the courthouse at the Otha Lee Biggs Ampitheater, after which the audience enters the courtroom for the culminating second act. For each performance, 12 white males, ages 18 and older — in accordance with the 1935 Maycomb, Alabama laws — are asked to “serve” on the jury during Act II as Scout, Jem, and Dill watch and comment from the second floor balcony.
The piece gets rave reviews every year and tickets have become a hot item. Auburn English Professor Emeritus Bert Hitchcock, who regularly put Lee’s book on the reading list for his Southern Literature graduate class, was captivated by the performance when he took a trip to Monroeville a few years ago.
“It’s as good as anything I’ve seen onstage,” said Hitchcock, a longtime teacher whose Auburn legacy lives on with the Hitchcock Graduate Award. “It’s amazing what they’ve managed to preserve there and that the novel has such lasting power. The cast was fantastic, and my hats off to them.”
Wayne Flynt of Auburn, Professor Emeritus of the Department of History and an old friend of Lee, is pleased to see that the book lives on through the play and serves as a blessing to the city.
“It’s absolutely central to Monroeville’s identity,” said Flynt, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of 15 books. “Their self-identity and self-conception is about their writers and their eminent writer, Harper Lee.”
Flynt’s second book on Lee, titled “Afternoons with Harper Lee,” will be released September 27 and available for pre-order on Amazon.com. It chronicles the 12-year friendship Flynt shared with Lee and his late wife, Dartie, and serves as a sequel to his 2017 book “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee,” which was published by HarperCollins.
“I’m not interested in summarizing everyone’s fantasies about Harper Lee, I’m interested in letting Harper Lee tell, in her own words, who she is and tell her story,” Flynt said of the forthcoming book. “The extent to which a historian can move out of the way of the story he is telling makes for the best history. What I’m trying to do is get myself away from the stories and just let people see through the lens of what she’s saying and conclude what they want to conclude about her. My job is to just let her be Harper Lee.”
Flynt, who performed Lee’s eulogy after the writer passed away in 2016, said Lee has never seen the piece on stage. However, he regularly brought Auburn students to Monroeville to experience it and still visits the city often.
Flynt was full of praise for the production.
“On Broadway, it’s a show. It’s an experience in Monroeville,” said Flynt, a noted history scholar and educator in the South for more than 40 years. “It’s definitely transformative to see it in that context in Monroeville. You can watch it on Broadway and not have half the experience of seeing it in Monroeville with an amateur cast of characters.
Flynt agrees that the play’s more than three-decade run is another illustration of the power of Lee’s legendary novel, which last December was named the “Best Book of the Past 125 Years” in a reader poll by the New York Times.
“I love the piece, and to me it upholds the ethical and moral implications of the book,” said Flynt, the winner of numerous teaching and writing awards and former editor of the Encyclopedia of Alabama. “The most obvious and most important is, ‘Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked in their shoes.'”
One more week this month and then next spring, Scout, Jem and Dill will return to their old antics for the play’s 32nd year – the 2023 season will run from April 10 – May 20 – and Atticus Finch will serve as the north of his children Star and the moral compass of humanity as he does his best to enforce the law in Maycomb. Hundreds of people will flock to tiny Monroeville to see the production and immerse themselves in one of the South’s most celebrated stories as Nelle Harper Lee’s legacy lives on as one of the most transcendent figures in the history of literature. .