Two Arts Angle Vantage Teen Reporters Review PNC Broadway’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” here with PNC Broadway in Louisville’s recent presentation of the touring production, gave Arts Angle Vantage teen reporters different opportunities. One was deeply familiar with the book and movie and another came to it anew.
Arts Angle Vantage gave them opportunities to interview legal experts who talked about the intersection of race and the law with a historical perspective and how it pertains to Harper Lee’s story and to ask questions of the show’s current cast members and members of the original Broadway cast.
Then teen reporters Sammie Haden and Adam West got to see the show on opening night, giving them further insights to write their articles.
Arts Angle Vantage and the participants are grateful to Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Brian Edward and Joanne Sweeny, University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law professor and the associate dean for academic affairs, actors Melanie Moore and Yaegel T Welch, and teacher and actor Shona Tucker, who just moved back to her hometown.
As always, we appreciate LEO Weekly and Editor Erica Rucker for helping us elevate youth voices and the arts by practicing the values of collaborative journalism.
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 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.
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 in that it is narrated by Scout, she is joined by Jem and Dill as the play’s 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.”
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.
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, professor at the University of Louisville and an understudy for Calpurnia in the original Broadway cast, said in the book that Robinson is shot 17 times, while Sorkin’s original script wrote Robinson to be shot five times.
But after Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, she said an actor questioned the change.
“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.
Sorkin’s play of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ renders painful story with flashes of comedy, surprise
The story of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now more than 60 years old, has a new presence with Aaron Sorkin’s play to make audiences care about the characters’ hardships and be able to grapple with the real-world issues it dramatizes.
“Most of the audience members know the story and are coming with a sort of hope to experience some of the things that they remember from reading the book and watching the movie,” said Yaegel T Welch (Tom Robinson).
Given this familiarity, audiences still care about the fictional characters in Sorkin’s play. Audiences were gripped by the events unfolding on stage at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall on June 22. That was opening night for a six-day run of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was a Broadway hit after it opened in 2018.
The story of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has transcended the decades, with many having learned about it in their youth.However, many of the audience, including me, had not grown up with lawyer Atticus Finch, tomboy Scout Finch or ever-doomed Tom Robinson. In this new play, Sorkin works to endear audiences to his version and these characters.
“Aaron has done such a beautiful job with the adaptation of sort of throwing people off their axis in the very beginning,” said Melanie Moore (Scout) in an interview before the Louisville run. “They’re expecting to see one thing, but from the moment the curtain opens, it’s something different. And so, they have to sit forward instead of just sitting back and saying, oh my God, I love this show.”
Sorkin does this with comedy — the play often had everyone laughing. The jokes hit the mark. The comedy gave viewers a broader range of emotion that included sadness, frustration, and joy. For example, during the show, there are very few times where Scout’s friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson) and Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas) meet and hilariously Dill repeats his full name — over and over until Atticus tells him to stop. During the second half, a powerful emotional scene happens with the pair coming closer after the trial has worn down everyone.
Atticus’ philosophy of goodness is another source of humor with jokes about how Atticus believes that there is good in everyone and how fighting is not necessarily the answer. These comments lead Atticus to genuinely question his philosophy.
Welch, who played Tom Robinson on Broadway before joining the tour, described two kinds of audience members — those who know the book and those “who know nothing about it.”
Nonetheless, he adds that Sorkin’s play is always “going to be a surprise.”
The surprises come early as the play establishes each character with unique quirks, backstories, and relationships. Scout says Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams) and Atticus act like siblings, reminding her of herself and Jem (Justin Mark). In the very next scene, Calpurnia and Atticus talk like brother and sister. Atticus says that it has seemed to him Calpurnia has been angry toward him, and tension rises as the play develops. Even Link Deas (Jeff Still), a small character in the book, gets an entire backstory. He seems like a comedic caricature of a town drunkard until that tragic narrative is revealed. When Atticus has had enough of the events tied to the trial, Bob Ewell (Joey Collins) comes to taunt him, Atticus snaps and goes against his beliefs, surprising.
The historical context that inspired this play and its characters are still timely. Even local legal experts agree.
“The issues of racism in the judicial system continue to be relevant,” said Joanne Sweeny, a law professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. “It’s not as out in the open as it was in the 1930s, but Black defendants are still treated disproportionately harshly by the criminal justice system.”
The play hits on hard on relevant concerns — societal racism, rape, an unfair trial, classism, and so much more. Basic stories of its characters — someone defending a Black man, the raging racist, the kids trying to find their way in a complex world — are archetypes that populate our real world.
The main characters confront hard truths and are forced to grow. Atticus confronts his beliefs about all people being good. All three of the children must learn about the evil around them and we see their reactions to it. Jem and Scout want to fight tooth and nail, even though that may not be viable. The only difference is, these characters have roughly three hours to grow and show growth while regular, run of the mill humans have lifetimes.
As the play making its tour, it is just as intriguing to former cast member Shona Tucker, the understudy for Calpurnia on Broadway and now is professor of theater at University of Louisville.
“It’s still magical,” she said. “It tells a story so simply and yet it moves and captivates. I’m still fascinated by it. I’ve gotten to watch it since I’ve stopped doing it. And God — the pictures it keeps creating in your brain, they stay with you.”