By Andy Yemma
Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was destined to become not only a literary classic, but an enduring story of justice and injustice, endemic racism, closed minds, youths coming of age, grief, compassion, and the ability to change.
The book was translated into more than 40 languages. The first screenplay, in 1962, won the Best Actor Oscar for Gregory Peck. The famed stage and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), adapted the story in 2018 and To Kill a Mockingbird opened on New York’s Broadway for an extended run, starring Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus Finch.
The Sorkin adaptation came to Denver’s Center for the Performing Arts this week for a limited run, with Richard Thomas (yes, John Boy from The Waltons), in the leading role. The Sorkin adaptation hews true to the story of Finch, a lawyer, being cajoled into the defense of a black man, Tom Robinson (played by Yaegel T. Welch), who has been falsely accused of rape. It is told mainly through the eyes of “Scout,” Finch’s young daughter, played by Melanie Moore.
Unlike the 1962 movie, Sorkin’s adaptation gives a much larger role to Finch’s black housekeeper Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), who challenges Finch’s preconceived notions that “there is good in everybody.” As the play develops, we look into the antagonists — bigoted and cowardly townspeople and the racist bully Bob Ewell (David Christopher Wells), who in reality raped his own daughter — and see that not so much has changed in the 70-plus years since Harper Lee’s novel was published.
I spent much of own coming of age days in Texas in the 1960s and early 70s. My family lived in increasingly metropolitan Austin, and we spent a lot of weekends in my mother’s small South Texas hometown. After living as an Air Force brat all over the world until age 10, I loved getting acquainted with my cousins and their friends in Yoakum.
In the early 1960s, segregation was still in full swing. I remember the movie theater in my mom’s hometown, where blacks could only sit in the balcony and enter through a separate entrance. I recall the casual way some of my own cousins and their friends used the “N” word. I am ashamed to say I used it too.
But I also attended integrated schools throughout my youth, and as I came of age I began to realize how unjust blacks were treated, and how hollow was the term “I am not a racist.”
To Kill a Mockingbird brought back many of those memories I’ve unconsciously tried to erase over the decades. I am glad for that. We should never forget. We should always remember and pass on our memories to our descendants so that they not fall into the trap of repeating the parts of our history that should not be repeated.
Richard Thomas (who is approximately my age) apparently has similar feelings. “As I grew up, they went from being characters in a book to being the world I was living in, and that’s part of the awakening,” he said in the program for the Sorkin adaptation.
Sitting a couple of seats down from us the other night at the Buell Theater was a young girl, probably about 10. She seemed to already have read the book or at least seen the movie. She was enraptured by the performance. Good for her!
A couple of footnotes: 1) the actress Mary Badman played Scout Finch in the 1962 movie. She plays the old lady Mrs. Henry Dubose in the current play, 2) a young actor named Robert Duvall made his movie debut in 1962’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird, playing the part of the misunderstood and mentally challenged hero Boo Radley. Before or after the play, you might enjoy a “Tequila Mockingbird,” a limited time special at Prelude + Post restaurant just steps from the Buell Theater.
To Kill a Mockingbird may becoming to your city this year. Check out the roadshow performance schedule here.