In Atticus Finch’s skin

BY BETSIE FREEMAN | PHOTOS BY MATT DIXON | THE WORLD-HERALD

By Betsie Freeman / World-Herald staff writer

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Thomas Becker's script book for his role as Atticus Finch.

After a long day at school, English teacher Thomas Becker was in his basement, fixing the family washing machine.
The appliance plays an important role in his busy household. Thomas and his wife, Amy, have five kids: two college students and three young children adopted from Haiti. With sports, dance classes and everyday life, that washer gets a workout.
He didn’t have a lot of time. He’d just gotten home from his job at Duchesne Academy and immediately was sucked into the family vortex: Kids were reading books and coloring to earn “technology time”; Amy and one of the older daughters were making dinner; Rags, the cuddly 13-year-old dachshund, was clamoring for attention.
Thomas, 51, needed to be at the Omaha Community Playhouse in about an hour to rehearse “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its season-opening play. He’s playing Atticus Finch, the lead character. And he was craving a short nap.
Despite a hectic life, for Thomas, theater is a necessary passion — especially his role as the Depression-era lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in a small Alabama town.
“He’s one of those characters you always aspire to be,” Thomas said. “Very few people are as straightforward and rational as he is. He’s a great father because he takes the time to explain things. I find myself wishing I could be that kind of dad.”

The Becker family from left, Via, 11; Mary Beth, 19; Thomas; John, 7; Anna, 17; Jeannette, 7; and Amy

Thomas and Amy know they will need the wisdom of Atticus in the years ahead, when their Haitian-born kids could face many of the racial attitudes that he fights in the play, based on Harper Lee’s iconic book. They suspect that it won’t be easy at times.
They’re right, said adoption expert Cortney Schlueter, who helps people adopting a child from a different race.

Thomas Becker prepares for his role as Atticus Finch in the Omaha Community Theatre's "To Kill a Mockingbird" before a dress rehearsal.

“Your family changes, and other people see how your family changes,” said Schlueter, director of Right Turn, a support agency that’s a partnership between Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska and the Nebraska Children’s Home Society.
And, Schlueter said, such parents have to acknowledge that racism exists and speak out against it whenever they see it.
“You can’t be passive. You have to show (your children) it’s important,” she said.
Atticus Finch models that for his kids. It’s one reason Becker was eager to play the beloved character.
Becker returned to community theater about eight years ago after taking a break to raise his older girls, Mary Beth, 19, and Anna, 17. He took on about one play a year as he helped his younger children adjust to life in Omaha.
When Vialancia (known as Via), now 11, and twins John and Jeannette, now 7, joined the family in 2010 after the devastating Haitian earthquake, the Beckers put their energy into making them feel welcome in a foreign environment and healing the scars they carried from living amid tragedy and poverty.
That didn’t leave Thomas much time for the stage, but things have calmed down.
“With every passing year, every milestone, we have fewer adoption family or culture problems and more family-of-seven problems,” said Amy, 45, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Christ the King Catholic School. “We have the normal family stresses and sibling fights. That’s the biggest change in five years. Now we are normal.”

Thomas Becker — who “has a social justice attitude, definitely,” said his wife — slips easily into Atticus Finch’s 1930s suit and mindset.

THE BECKERS

Dad: Thomas, 51, English and theater teacher at Duchesne Academy for 21 years. Bachelor’s degree from South Dakota State University and a master’s in theater from the University of South Carolina.
Mom: Amy, 45, English teacher at Christ the King Catholic School. Bachelor’s degree from Dana College and enrolled in the master’s in educational leadership program at Creighton University. She also is a theater director.
The kids:
» Mary Beth, 19, student at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has been in shows at the Rose Theater and the Omaha Community Playhouse.
» Anna, 17, student at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She loves to bake and cook, has stage-managed the Omaha Dance Project and participated in the Blue Barn’s Walk the Night.
» Via, 11, sixth-grader at Christ the King. She’s the serious child. No matter what she’s doing, she wants to do it well. She’s spiritual; for nightly reading sessions with mom, she first chose the Bible, then books about the saints. She recently became an altar server.
» John, 7, first-grader at Christ the King. He’s into sports and mechanical things and is very affectionate. “He can be flying through the house doing something he’s probably not supposed to do, and he’ll stop and throw his arms around you,” Amy said.
» Jeannette, 7, first-grader at Christ the King. She got the “Smiles a Mile” award at Hummel Park Day Camp. She loves animals and one-on-one time with her sisters.

The reason behind the adoption is what gives Thomas an affinity for Atticus. On a Duchesne mission trip to the Dominican Republic, he saw children eating food they scavenged from the garbage and drinking water from holes in the ground.
“For some reason I was drawn to them,” he said.
When he and Amy discussed adoption, he thought of Haiti. He wanted to help kids like those he had seen on that trip.
“He has a social justice attitude, definitely,” Amy said.
Daughter Anna, who was in one of her dad’s classes at Duchesne, backs that up.
“You can tell he is very open-minded in the way he teaches,” she said as she helped her mom make black-bean burgers.
When the Playhouse announced plans to produce “Mockingbird,” Amy was excited. She was sure she was married to the perfect Atticus. Both had taught Lee’s book and cherished it among their favorites.
“I thought, ‘Oh, he needs to audition for this.’ It’s a beautiful, important work. I felt like it was a good fit.”
Playhouse guest director Ablan Roblin thought so, too. He said he needed an Atticus who could convey a sense of presence and strength without major effort.
“It needed to be unspoken, and Thomas did that exceedingly well,” said the director, who auditioned “quite a few very talented actors” for the part.

Left: Thomas Becker rehearses a scene in his role as Atticus Finch in the Omaha Community Theatre's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Right: John, 7 (at left), Via, 11, Mary Beth, 19, and Jeannette, 7, hang out in their home.

The play has provided an opportunity for the cast to explore issues that are as real today as they were in the 1930s. Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson though he knows his fellow citizens could cause trouble for his family. His children, Scout and Jem, struggle as the trial proceeds.
Roblin said it is especially interesting to work with Becker because they come from different perspectives, yet both can relate to the material: The director was raised in Mississippi and Louisiana, and Becker grew up in South Dakota. He thinks Becker has additional insight as the white father of black kids.
“It’s remarkable what Thomas and Amy have done with their children,” he said.
If anyone’s remarkable, Thomas said, it’s his wife of 20 years. After he initially mentioned international adoption, she had the fortitude to navigate all the bureaucracy it involved, he said. She’s still handling it: She has made numerous trips to the Omaha offices of the federal Department of Homeland Security as the citizenship process gets started. Each child has a permanent green card ($3,750 apiece), and now the Beckers are working on the other paperwork the kids need.


"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."
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird


At the same time, the Beckers help their kids remember their heritage. They have Haitian artwork on the walls of their Benson home, listen to Creole music and read books with pictures of the three youngsters’ native country. They also maintain contact with other people who have kids from the same orphanage, including a family in Iowa that adopted Via’s biological cousin — all things Schlueter said are important when you adopt children from another culture.
Thomas and Amy know that in the future they will need to have some tough conversations with their youngest kids about how to behave in a world where they sometimes will face suspicion — and danger, if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s hard to do this play and not think about being the parent of black kids,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to watch the news ... it tears at your heart.”

“He’s one of those characters you always aspire to be,” Thomas said of the noble Southern attorney, Atticus Finch. “Very few people are as straightforward and rational as he is. He’s a great father because he takes the time to explain things. I find myself wishing I could be that kind of dad.”

They’ve already had talks about racism with Via, but John and Jeannette are too young, they say. Thomas said there’s no way he can convey to his son what it’s like to be a black man, so he plans to cultivate friendships with guys who can.
“If he’s with some group trying to (toilet-paper) a house or some other shenanigans, he’s going to be treated differently,” Thomas said. “We think about that a lot. We will tell him the same things black parents tell their kids: If you’re stopped, be docile and do exactly what they tell you.”
Adoption expert Schlueter, who did not work with the Beckers, said parents also can defuse tense situations if they’re with their kids at the time, with words that give people an opportunity to backtrack, such as: “Surely you wouldn’t make a statement like that in front of a child. You must have meant something different.” She also said you can teach kids similar phrases.

Thomas Becker goes over his lines in the dressing room.

And, she said, if children tell you about a situation in which they felt discrimination, don’t dismiss it or come up with another explanation for the behavior. Validate their experience and talk it through.
Mary Beth took Via to a performance of “Mockingbird” last weekend, though Amy thought the play might be difficult for her young daughter. Amy talked with Via beforehand about what to expect — that characters in the play would use an ugly racial epithet.
“She had heard it before. That made me sad,” Amy said.
Via’s reaction to the play, however, was a little surprising. She seemed more excited about seeing her dad on stage in a lead role for the first time — and happy that he was the good guy — than she was disturbed about the play’s content.
The experience opened the door for future conversations about the book and the play, Amy said. Like her husband, she believes that the story has the power to change the world if you let it.
So does Roblin. He hopes that audience members have a new perspective when they leave the theater. Atticus, he said, expressed the point of the play better than anyone: “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,” he tells Scout.
“I hope people will acknowledge that and take it with them,” Roblin said.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1267, elizabeth.freeman@owh.com

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