Still Aiming at Mockingbirds


Last week I had the stirring experience of watching my mother Claudette Clarke perform as Calpurnia in Christopher Sergel’s theatre adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird in Sydney.

Although Sergel’s play is well-written, particularly the lengthy courtroom scene, it deviates considerably from the book most notably, for me, through the dilution of the black community’s part in the story. Although there was facility in the play for the utilisation of black actors, in the form of courtroom extras and members of Reverend Sykes’s (played by eloquently by Ken Bernard) church congregation, it appeared that practical difficulties of accessing these actors prevented this actualisation.

Highlights included the stunning stage design, the brilliantly directed ‘mad dog’ scene, and the breathtaking impact of twelve-year-old Elijah Williams (pictured holding hands with Eleni Dimitriadis as Scout) as the accused Tom Robinson’s silent shadow, raising his voice only to sing a stirring version of the gospel melody Down to the River after the guilty verdict is passed. Robinson himself was played by Tim Wardell with a perfectly balanced combination of with pathos and pride, and Phil Lye’s Bob Ewell was so convincingly vulgar I almost shivered when he entered the stage. Tim Warden was on stage lurking in the background for almost the entire play as the elusive Boo Radley, and when he finally unmasked, the one line he delivered was worth ten pages of any other character’s dialogue.

I was shocked to hear though, that several evenings before I saw the play, a racist heckler in the audience sat cheering at every utterance of the word nigger, and clapped heartily at Tom Robinson’s unjust conviction. The theatre was in Chatswood, on Sydney’s North Shore and the audience, at least on the evening I attended, seemed primarily to be a middle-class, grey crowd. There seemed to be an unspoken attitude amongst the audience of Wasn’t it terrible back then? Look how far things have come … But of course, in reality, even in Australia in 2009, the law does not treat everyone as equals and it can still be argued that racism plays a key part in the handling of white on black, and black on white, crime.

Then, as if to confirm this, my mother emailed me a transcript from Sunday’s coverage of the trials, in far North Queensland, of two white hit and run drivers who mowed down indigenous victims, in questionable circumstances, and left them for dead. The transcript reads so chillingly like the courtroom scene from Mockingbird that it sent me into a deep depression. How far have we really come? Transcript extract:

Just how colour blind is the judicial system in far north Queensland? In this special report, Ross Coulthart looks at troubling issues highlighted by two tragedies on the streets of Townsville. Both were hit and run killings where the victims were Aborigines and the drivers young white males. How these deaths were investigated and the way those responsible were then prosecuted and dealt with by the courts has outraged the families of Errol Wyles and Yasman Rae Sturt. The driver of the car that killed Yasman received a suspended prison sentence and a $750 fine. The youth who killed Errol served two-and-a-half months in jail then spent the rest of his 15-month term on a prison farm. Ross Coulthart presents strong evidence suggesting that Errol’s death was racially motivated and amounted to homicide …

COULTHART: Late one night in Townsville, two years ago. A boy is run over by a car. Twice it crushes his body. But the driver doesn’t stop and
fifteen-year-old Errol Wyles is left dying on the road.

LINDA DAVIS — RESIDENT: He was trying to hit the boys on the bikes.

COULTHART: You’re in no doubt about that?

DAVIS: No, he was aiming at them.

COULTHART: Another street in Townsville, eight months earlier. The broken body of a young woman is found. Close to death, Yasman Rae Sturt is the victim of another hit
and run.

JORDAN GEE-HOY: I’m looking at her, coughing, choking on her own blood. She’s still alive… I’m staring at her praying for the poor girl.

COULTHART: Both victims were Aborigines. The drivers were white and both of them fled the scene. The victims’ families believe the drivers in both cases were treated far too leniently by the justice system.

ERROL WYLES SNR — FATHER OF ERROL WYLES: There’s two laws. There’s laws for white Australia and there’s another set of laws for indigenous Australians.

COULTHART: Today on Sunday allegations of a racially motivated killing and disturbing evidence of serious failures in our criminal justice system.

KEN HORLER , QC — BARRISTER: There is a strong, compelling case to go to the jury that the action of the driver on the night amounted to a form of homicide. Not just
dangerous driving.

STEWART LEVITT — LAWYER FOR WYLES FAMILY: It’s just intolerable that a person could be killed in circumstances where there is not the fullest and most thorough investigation into the circumstances and where the criminal law doesn’t do its darndest to ensure that justice is done.

Click here for full transcript

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

More by Maxine Beneba Clarke ›

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