New Play Starring Duluth Resident Pulls the Curtain Back on Publicity-Shy American Author Harper Lee
New Play Pulls the Curtain Back on Publicity-Shy American Author Harper Lee
Lilburn, Ga. --- In just four scenes and under one hour, “The World of Harper Lee: Nelle’s Story” gives audience members the opportunity to get to know the person of Harper Lee, famous for the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” According to biographer Charles J. Shields, Lee was unprepared for the amount of personal attention associated with writing a bestseller. Ever since, she has led a quiet and guardedly private life.
The book, which is one of the most “assigned” texts in academia, that also holds a place on the top ten list of most “banned” books, deals with the issues of racism that were observed by the author as a child in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Despite being Lee's only published book, it led to her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States for her contribution to literature in 2007. Lee has also been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees but has always declined to make a speech. To date, she continues to respond to the book's impact, but Lee has refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.
The play, written and produced by Melita Easters, and starring actress Mandi Lee, is a one-woman play about Harper Lee, as told by Lee herself, starting when she was just a young girl in the summer of 1937 and ending in the fall of 2007 before Lee became more frail after a stroke in 2008.
Eighth grade students at Providence Christian Academy in Lilburn were among the first to see the play before their school year ended in May. In a question and answer session after the performance with the author, actress and PCA eighth graders, Easters explained that there are only a few biographies published on Harper Lee, which are mostly for academic study. The play aims to fill in the blanks for audience members on the person of Harper Lee and even those close to her, like childhood friend and fellow writer, Truman Capote (1924-1984). Although it is a fictional play, Easters does not speculate in coloring the person of Harper Lee for her audience. The well-researched script is taken from published facts and accompanied by slideshows of actual photographs and videos from Lee’s life shown in between scenes.
“I'm fascinated by Harper Lee's life and how it is intertwined with certain aspects of her novel. I'm excited for my students to learn more about that. I hope that after seeing this play, they will begin to think of the novel as something more than a story we read in class, thinking of it instead as the carefully crafted message of a real woman who had something important to say and used narrative to say it. I also think by seeing this play, my eighth graders will better understand the historical context of the novel's events as well as the social climate surrounding the publication of the book,” said PCA English Teacher Melissa Westbrook.
The twenty-two-year-old actress and PCA alumnus, Class of 2007, Mandi Lee, brought the play to the school as a way to test it out with an audience before its official debut on June 15 at The Cloister, a 5-Star luxury resort on Sea Island, Ga. She first met Easters in an open audition last summer to play the role of Margaret Mitchell in a “held over” run of the successful one-woman play also written and produced by Easters called, “Mrs. John Marsh - The World Knew Her as Margaret Mitchell” at the Ansley Park Playhouse in Atlanta, Ga.
“I fell in love with her ability to express a character,” Easters remarks after recalling her first exposure to Mandi Lee’s acting ability. “She’s fresh, energetic and lovely to work with. She has a star quality,” Easters concluded.
It’s no wonder Easters did not want to work with any other actress when she decided to do another one-woman play about Harper Lee.
“The two American authors have so much in common,” Easters said, explaining her decision to write another one-woman play. “They are both one-book authors, Pulitzer-Prize winners, Southern women and even college drop-outs.”
Mandi Lee plays the parts of both of these women at various stages of their lives, and says personality-wise, the two authors are very different.
“Harper Lee is a harder character to access because she is so private,” Lee remarked, “but Margaret Mitchell was a Southern woman who would talk to anyone.” Lee identified more with Harper Lee as the young “Scout” in the “To Kill a Mockingbird” book, which Lee read for the first time in elementary school when other kids were caught up in the Judy Bloom series.
As an actress, Lee has been enjoying the opportunity to perform the one-woman shows with Easters because it is a “back and forth relationship and conversation with the audience instead of other plays when the interaction is with other actors on stage,” she explained.
When Mandi Lee becomes Harper Lee, it is as if you get to be a fly on the wall of a 1930’s South Alabama court room inspiring future great writers like Harper Lee and Truman Capote. On this journey through time, you get to hear what was going through Lee’s mind when she dropped out of college, struggled to make ends meet and put a novel together in New York in the 1950’s. When you are watching this play, you feel like you are one of the cadets at West Point in 1965, getting to hear from Lee during the height of the Civil Rights movement. You struggle alongside Lee as she deals with the unexpected instant success of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the pressure to deliver another novel in its wake. There are exciting times to share too, like meeting Gregory Peck during the filming of the award-winning Hollywood film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and giving BBC reporters the run around in her hometown. Throughout the play, Lee will keep you in stitches, showcasing a good sense of humor true to the real Harper Lee, who although very "private," is anything but a recluse.
In “The World of Harper Lee: Nelle’s Story,” Easters gives audience members what so many people have longed to do: Sit down and have a nice long chat with Harper Lee. What advice would she give aspiring writers? Who are the writers she most admires and why? Why does she refuse publicity? What does she have to say about her book being banned? Why didn’t she write another novel? What does she think about our modern society with laptops, cell phones, i-Pods and electronic readers?
Pull up a chair. In “The World of Harper Lee: Nelle’s Story,” you are going to get an earful!
The new play by Melita Easters opens this weekend at The Cloister, June 15.
PROVIDENCE CHRISTIAN ACADEMY is the premier, mid-sized K-12 Christian school in the Atlanta area, offering programs and qualities that rival larger schools along with more personal attention and the comfortable fit of a smaller student body.
CONTACT Joanna Duke, firstname.lastname@example.org, 404-964-8581, to set up media interviews and obtain photos.