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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ cast says Sorkin’s play captures cruelty of racism, loss

By Sammie Haden | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

Over 50 years after the release of both the movie and the book, playwright Aaron Sorkin takes the story of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a direction that subtly and at times drastically alters themes and events of the book, making for a controversial take on a classic story.

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” which opened for its Broadway run in 2018, came to Kentucky Center for The Arts from June 20 to 25. This highest-grossing American play in Broadway history, directed by Bartlett Sher and on this tour starring Emmy Award-winner Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), transformed audiences into courtrooms for a nearly three-hour performance.

On the porch (l to r) Justin Mark (Jem Finch), Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch), Melanie Moore (Scout Finch) and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris) in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

The Broadway play maintains classic scenes — such as when Scout (Melanie Moore) confronts a mob of men with childish innocence. The tom-boyish narrator calls out Mr. Cunningham (Travis John), who she bonded with towards the beginning of the play. Scout is constantly asking questions, and this is portrayed in the scene where she manages to unmask the angry mob as her “friends and neighbors.”

“Scout is on a quest for truth,” Moore said. “She is on a quest for understanding. She's constantly getting to the heart of the matter and asking questions about what it was, why it was, what does that mean?”

Although the play relates to the book and movie narrated by Scout, in the play Jem and Dill join her as narrators. The characters provide a comical twist to the painful tale that often reflects real life.

But Scout’s role as a co-narrator isn’t the only change Sorkin makes. In fact, Scout is no longer the main character at all.

“I am the narrator, but I'm not the main character. The story is not about my loss of innocence,” Moore said. “It's more about Atticus's loss of innocence and his journey to understanding. And while I'm still a very large part, it isn't necessarily what the play centers around.”

Richard Thomas (Atticus Finch) and the company of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Along with this, Sorkin notably gives more scenes to Black characters. Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) is transformed from a background character into a challenger of Atticus, often making fun of his ideals and supporting the fighting spirit of the Finch kids over Atticus himself. Along with Calpurnia, Sorkin also shines a brighter spotlight on Tom Robinson (Yaegel Welch).

“In the book, the Tom Robinson story is only two chapters,” Welch said. “You don't really get to hear a lot from him or learn a lot about him or the character Calpurnia. But Aaron Sorkin sort of modernizes that and gives the African American characters more of a voice.”

But Sorkin changed more than just a few characters and scenes. He got to the very heart of the story — Atticus Finch.

The character of Atticus Finch has been criticized in recent decades — with many people knocking the portrayal of him as a “white savior.”

“It's a little bit like a white savior sort of moment,” Moore said of the character of Atticus Finch in the 1961 screenplay. “At the end of the movie, he's sort of like, ‘Oh well, isn't it great that we solved racism?’”

Sorkin’s adaptation seems to focus on making audiences question their perception of Atticus Finch today.

Melanie Moore (Scout Finch) and Jacqueline Williams (Calpurnia) in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Perhaps one of the most altered scenes of the play occurs in the final half hour. When Bob Ewell pays a visit to the Finch house after Tom Robinson is given the death penalty and shares a few words, the infamously respectful do-gooder puts Ewell in a chokehold, calling the drunkard inferior and beneath him.

Harper Lee originally wrote Atticus as a respectful man who chooses to fight with words in the courtroom rather than his fists. By writing this scene, Sorkin altered a long-held perception of Atticus.

“I think that is one very large difference that I know Aaron was very focused on making,” Moore said. “And obviously he couldn't change the book. And you can't change the text with which you're working within. But he can do things like making there be more questions at the end.”

Sorkin even made changes after the play’s Broadway run. Shona Tucker, a newly appointed University of Louisville Department of Theatre Arts professor and chair, was an understudy for Calpurnia in the original Broadway cast. She pointed out that in the book Robinson is shot 17 times, while Sorkin’s original script indicated Robinson was shot five times.

But after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, she said an actor questioned the change, and Sorkin changed his script to reflect the 17 times written in the book.

“It's relevant today,” Tucker said. “There are too many police shootings of unarmed black men.”

The book is still a touchstone for many universal truths that I can see today.

I grew up in a household that was no stranger to “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book’s character of Atticus Finch inspired my mom to become a lawyer. I read it with her when I was around 12 years old. My brother is even named after the beloved Maycomb lawyer and do-gooder.

From lovers of Harper Lee’s book, like my mom, to thousands of kids of this generation being introduced to the new telling of this classic story, it’s no doubt that Broadway’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains deeply relevant.

Sammie Haden is a junior at duPont Manual High School where she is an assignment editor for On The Record Magazine.

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