MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Each spring when the azaleas bloom, attorney Atticus Finch, daughter Scout and other characters from “To Kill a Mockingbird” come to life on the courthouse lawn in the Alabama hometown of author Harper Lee, who will release a sequel to her classic novel in July.
Townspeople, all volunteers largely without theater experience, join together annually to perform a stage version of Lee’s story of racial injustice in the Deep South. The play opens outside the courthouse and ends in the same courtroom that was a set model for the Hollywood version of the book.
The production is a point of civic pride that draws crowds from across the globe and helps fill motels, restaurants and shops in otherwise sleepy Monroeville, a town of 6,300 in southwest Alabama. This year’s shows opened last week with a performance for schoolchildren; others have been sold out for weeks, partly because of excitement created by word of Lee’s unexpected “Mockingbird” follow-up — “Go Set a Watchman.”
Yet the play, now in its 26th season, may eventually be coming to an end.
Organizers haven’t been able to obtain rights to produce the play beyond 2015, records show, and a person involved in the delay is the same person who came under scrutiny after discovering “Watchman” and alerting a publisher: Lee’s attorney Tonja Carter.
Probate Judge Greg Norris in Monroe County is working with Carter to obtain permission to stage “Mockingbird” in 2016. Tonja Carter’s husband has been appointed to the board that oversees the play, but the future of the production is in “limbo,” according to minutes from a March meeting of directors of the Monroe County Heritage Museum. The museum puts on the play each year.
Norris declined comment on specifics of the talks last week, saying only that he’s hopeful the play will continue in the downtown amphitheater where it’s currently staged.
“We want the play for our community. It makes people proud,” Norris told the Associated Press.
Carter, who has handled business affairs for the famously private author for several years, didn’t return a message seeking comment. Neither did the president of the Illinois-based Dramatic Publishing Co., which licenses the play.
But friction isn’t anything new between Lee and the museum, located in the old Monroe County Courthouse where the play is put on each year.
In 2013, Lee sued the museum over “Mockingbird” souvenirs sold in its store after seeking a federal trademark for the title of her book when it is used on clothing. The suit came after the museum opposed the application, saying souvenir sales were vital to its operation.
The legal dispute was settled, but news of the unexpected follow-up novel by Lee once again put a spotlight on Monroeville’s most famous resident.
Questions arose among some friends and longtime acquaintances about whether the 88-year-old author — who hadn’t previously revealed plans to publish a second book and now lives in an assisted living center — was competent to make the decision to release “Watchman,” which was written in the 1950s before “Mockingbird.”
The upcoming book is described as being set 20 years after Finch — based upon Lee’s attorney father — defended a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Maycomb, a fictional town based upon Monroeville. In “Watchman,” Finch’s daughter Scout returns home to her childhood home as an adult.
The state of Alabama has closed an investigation into possible elder abuse involving Lee, but the author has yet to comment publicly aside from statements released by Carter or publisher HarperCollins. Lee has suffered a stroke and is nearly deaf; friends say she reads with large magnifier.
The thought of a spring without the play and the business it generates sends chills through area merchants like book retailer Spencer Madrie. Madrie’s Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe just off the square has sold more than 5,000 advance copies of “Watchman.”
“If it’s the last year of the play I’ll build a stage out back and have it here,” said Madrie, who co-owns the store with his mother. “The town without the play? It’s hard to imagine.”
With multiple performances in April and May, the play will generate about $204,000 in ticket sales this year. The museum typically pays around $16,000 in licensing fees for “Mockingbird,” and revenues also help pay for the upkeep and operation of county historic sites including the old courthouse, where the dome is gleaming white after a $13,480 paint job that was completed last week.
Sandy Smith, who once portrayed the drug-addicted Mrs. Dubose in the drama and serves as executive director of the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, said ending the play would be a loss for Monroeville.
“It is such a point of pride for the town,” Smith said.
Until the future of the play is settled, museum executive director Stephanie Rogers said she isn’t sure how to answer questions about people who already are planning to come to Monroeville for the play in 2016. That includes a travel group from Australia that plans to bring people to town both this year and next for the show.
“I told them I don’t yet have confirmation from the publishing company, but when I do I can sell them those tickets,” said Rogers.