ELWOOD, Ind.—The director behind a production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is hoping it will help bring a message of healing to a city with a reputation of racism and negativity.
Harper Lee’s coming-of-age tale of racial inequality in the Deep South has long been a staple of the stage and in classrooms across the country. For Bill Smith, its themes provide a perfect vehicle to address Elwood’s past and future.
“All of my life, I’ve wanted to see our community come together in the spirit of love and unity. And we’re seeing that more and more,” Smith said.
Elwood has a history and reputation for racism including being host to the KKK and acts of violence against African Americans and people of color. Smith says he and his family experienced that racism first-hand. He comes from a mixed family and has African American family members.
“We know what it’s like to walk down the streets of this community in the 1970s and late 1960s and have the N-word hurled at you. We know what it’s like to be physically assaulted walking down an alley here in this community when we were only 12 years old,” he said.
Smith says times, and Elwood, have changed. He believes there’s no better way to show that than with the story of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
“This will help our community, remember what we don’t want to be, and what we can be,” he added.
Elwood Mayor Todd Jones agrees. “The community that we are today is not the community that we were. We have made great strides and positive change to try to erase that stigma of the past,” Jones said.
While the cast and crew is made up of Hoosiers from various towns and cities, there is a strong contingent of Elwood residents. Like Smith, part of their motivation is to help change the narrative of the place they call home.
“When I first moved to the area, I moved to Marion at first and I was told not to go to Elwood because of the history… of all the places that I’ve lived this is the place I’ve felt safest in terms of race relations,” Raphael Starr said.
Smith says there’s no denying that Elwood’s reputation is a hard one. He also doesn’t deny said reputation was earned. But Smith says he believes that if the themes that made "To Kill a Mockingbird" a success can do anything it is to help prove that your past doesn’t have to define you.
“What I hope it does for this community is that it’s a reminder that the past doesn’t have to dictate the future. Yes, we can look at our past and recognize what it was, and not whitewash it, but learn from it and make it a better place,” Smith said.
Performances are at the Elwood Opera House, Thursday through Saturday. For more information on tickets you can click here.