Utah Premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s Adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Takes White...
Performance & Theatre Arts
Premiering at Salt Lake City’s Grand Theatre on March 26, the upcoming production of Oscar and Emmy winner Aaron Sorkin’s stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird is a happy ending to a long story of legal struggles to present the play to Utah audiences. The new version, currently running on Broadway, differs significantly from both the 1962 film and the 1990 stage version. Sorkin’s script brings Atticus down from his erstwhile pedestal and examines him as a man who is “struggling every day to do the right thing,” says Mark Fossen, Director of The Grand’s Mockingbird. “Atticus is like our saint of justice, but I’m interested in seeing how difficult it is to confront your own privilege—to learn to be a better ally, to learn to listen and to question your beliefs. I feel like I’ve gone through that, and I want to see an Atticus who does that.” The play’s expanded cast of characters of color challenge Atticus’s behavior, and Fossen hopes the new script will prompt timely discussions of present-day issues of racism, white saviorism and injustice.
“It may have been a blessing in disguise,” Fossen says about the drawn-out debacle surrounding last year’s halted production of the Christopher Sergel version of Mockingbird. The Grand secured the rights to put on the Sergel version in their 2018–2019 season, but in the middle of rehearsals, a copyright dispute halted the production. The cast and crew were devastated, and the theater lost money. The blessing finally came a year later, when regional theaters were offered a steep discount to produce Sorkin’s new script. The Grand jumped at the opportunity to bring back cast members from the abandoned production and will be one of the first theaters in the country to present the anticipated new version.
“[Duffin] will also challenge you if she doesn’t agree with something. I always want to be challenged in my creative decisions.”
Fossen says the road to present the play was rocky, but one valuable opportunity provided by this much-changed version was expanded parts for actors of color. Despite being the man who the action of the play centers around and whose life is at stake, Tom Robinson has never spoken for himself in To Kill a Mockingbird, which “contributes to it being a white savior narrative,” says Fossen. In fact, this is the first version to feature scenes with Robison and his lawyer Atticus alone together. Played by Tristan B. Johnson, Robinson speaks up for himself when Atticus, played by Paul Kiernan, talks over him, Fossen says. Johnson, a graduate of Westminster College’s BFA in Theatre Performance, stood out during open auditions for the role and brings both vulnerability and a mature presence to the role. Beyond Robinson having more lines in a story that actually revolves around him, Fossen also says that he made the creative decision to keep Robinson on stage and visible as much as possible, even in scenes where he doesn’t have any lines. “I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and he talks about trying to destroy the black body. And so I wanted to keep that body on stage as a physical reminder.”
Calpurnia, the Finch family’s maid, also has an expanded role in the Sorkin version. Fossen said he pursued Dee Dee Darby Duffin for the original Sergel version role based on her powerful voice and presence—both on stage and off—and was relieved she was still able to take on the Sorkin version a year later. “I knew Dee Dee would be the perfect Calpurnia,” says Fossen. “She will also challenge you if she doesn’t agree with something. I always want to be challenged in my creative decisions.” One of the main points Calpurnia argues about with Atticus is the post-Charlottesville, “there-are-good-people-on-both-sides” narrative. Atticus’ general attitude is that the Maycomb townspeople are mostly good, and their prejudice against Robinson is more about ignorance than malice. Calpurnia challenges this view, pointing out that ignorance doesn’t excuse the consequences of their belief system. Fossen says that the Sorkin version asks: “Are they really good people at heart if they’re trying to lynch a black man?”
“The thought of directing a play that says you shouldn’t trust women just makes me sick.”
A production aspect that Fossen found challenging was how to portray the character of Mayella Ewell, played by Viviane Turman. The case against Robinson depends on Mayella’s sworn testimony that he raped her. Fossen says that the original rehearsals coincided with the widely publicized testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the then-potential Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. The Right invoked To Kill a Mockingbird in their partisan-line defense of Kavanaugh and called the hearing their “Atticus Finch moment.” In this context, directing was difficult. “The thought of directing a play that says you shouldn’t trust women just makes me sick,” says Fossen. The Sorkin version, however, gives background that could explain why Mayella would condemn an innocent man to death by lying. “Watching [Mayella’s] testimony on stage just ties me in knots … It makes me feel awful every time I watch it,” says Fossen. “But I think audiences want to be challenged.”
The contemporary resonance of the story is disturbing, but also provides an opportunity to use live theater as a means of taking on these persistent social problems. Fossen says that he wanted to highlight the script’s exploration of the differences between what Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, describes as the difference between “not racist” and “antiracist.” Not being a racist is passive and, Kendi argues, often complicit with predatory racist systems. To be antiracist is to actively call out and take on systemic injustice at the heart of American racism today. The still-timely nature of the original story and the re-contextualized Sorkin characters hints that Mockingbird could be reimagined and produced for successive generations in the same way that Shakespeare has been for centuries. Fossen hopes that the production helps people see Atticus in a less-superhuman light and prompts questions about how each of us can also become active antiracists.