Report from the Field: Woodstock, Georgia
March 9, 2010
Taryn Chidebelu-Eze in character as Calpurnia at Towne Lake Arts Center's To Kill a Mockingbird tea. Photo courtesy Towne Lake Art Center.
Towne Lake Arts Center in Woodstock, Georgia, recently hosted a Big Read of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. In the essay below actress Taryn Chidebelu-Eze, who appeared in a local stage production of Mockingbird, recounts an emotional experience she had at a Big Read event. (Reprinted with permission from The Cherokee Tribune, Sunday February 28, 2010)
I have just been through one of the most emotional and humbling experiences in my lifetime. My name is Taryn Chidebelu-Eze, and I?m an actress with the Towne Lake Arts Center of Woodstock. I?m currently involved in the Arts Center?s production of Harper Lee?s To Kill a Mockingbird. In order to promote the show in the community, some of the members of the cast went to the local tea room, Tea Leaves & Thyme, to sit and have tea with the guests while in character. We were to act as though we were plucked from Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1935 and placed in Woodstock, Georgia, in 2010.
The character I played was Calpurnia, Atticus Finch?s African- American housekeeper and caregiver to his two children. At my suggestion (because my directors would never), I was seated alone at a table that was labeled ?Colored Only? to create a more authentic experience. I wanted to place myself in the shoes of my not so distant ancestors. I had no idea what to expect. I didn?t expect to feel so alone as I listened to conversations around me and no one would talk to me.
The actress who played Miss Stephanie sat with a table full of twelve-year-old Caucasian girls celebrating a birthday. The girls were very much engaged and enjoyed explaining modern gadgets such as cell phones, iPods, Wii, and computers to Miss Stephanie. Their conversation seemed very lighthearted until I heard one of the children say, ?We don?t put African-American people in a different section. That?s not right!? Then it seemed that the floodgates opened for the entire table to say what they were thinking. The comments I heard were, ?We go to school with African-Americans.? ?They?re our friends.? ?The only thing different about them is their skin. We?re all the same.? ?In the year 2010, the president of the United States is African-American.? One girl even asked Miss Stephanie, ?Did you ever ask an African-American how they feel about being treated like that??
At this point, I was facing the wall because I didn?t want the entire tearoom to see me crying. I?d spent the most of the time in silence as my character would truly only interact with Scout, making a fuss over her, making sure she was minding her manners and generally not embarrassing Mr. Finch. I didn?t have anyone with whom I could socially interact and anyone who knows me knows that that is the opposite of who I am. Not being allowed to speak or be spoken to was utterly stifling. So when I heard those girls speak up for me, I was moved to tears.
After thoroughly giving Miss Stephanie the "411" on 2010, the birthday girl at the table turned to me and said, ?Miss Calpurnia, in 2010 we have an African-American president. He?s the first.? She then launched into an explanation about how on the Nintendo Wii, ?You can make a Mii. And it comes in all different skin colors.?
It started off as an ordinary day and turned into one that I will never forget. In To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a part where Atticus explains to his children, ?You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . .Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.? When I walked out of that tea room, I truly understood.