As right-wing censors in several states wage their foolish war against teaching the full scope of American history — racism and all — here comes “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the Aaron Sorkin play based on the Harper Lee novel that people have tried (and mostly failed) to ban from public schools since the book’s publication in 1960.
Sorkin’s adaptation arrived on Broadway in 2018. Its national tour comes to the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore next week, with Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a Black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The setting is the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. It’s the time of the Great Depression and Jim Crow.
The story is one of the most popular and enduring in American literature, and for good reason: Most Americans recognize that our history is a patchwork of things great and things appalling, of heroic tales and horror stories, and that our struggle toward equality continues.
But some Americans, the governor of Florida foremost, deplore the teaching of history from any perspective other than the one that presents the country in its brightest, most patriotic light. Those people live in our 51st state, the state of denial. They want to protect our young from the hard lessons. In a roundup last month of right-wing censorship efforts, Education Week found that 18 states have passed laws that impose restrictions on lessons about race and racism that make students feel “guilt or anguish” for past actions of their race.
What a bunch of nanny states.
In the midst of all this, we have the national tour of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and a story that tells of both interracial and intraracial conflict: Whites in Maycomb believe the accused Black man, Tom Robinson, to be guilty; a mob of men want to lynch him. Atticus, however, is the man of integrity — or white savior, depending on your view — who gives Robinson the vigorous defense he deserves.
Thomas thinks Sorkin’s script enriches the character by taking the widowed lawyer off the pedestal he’s been on for 60-plus years. “He’s made [Atticus] flawed,” Thomas says via Google Meet from St. Louis. “He’s interrogated all of his unassailable virtues. All the things that we think can never be questioned about Atticus Finch are questioned in the course of the play. The whole experience of the play teaches him, but nobody teaches him more than Calpurnia.”
Indeed, the role of Finch’s housekeeper, the Black woman who cares for his children, Jem and Scout, is much larger in the play than in the novel or in the 1962 movie. In the touring production, Jacqueline Williams plays the housekeeper who engages and challenges Finch’s beliefs.
Thomas says Sorkin’s script has given Atticus and Calpurnia “a certain unselfconscious level of intimacy.” As a result, the two are able to quibble and argue about what’s happening in Maycomb.
“They can really be honest with each other,” says Williams, joining the conversation with Thomas.
“Yes,” he says. “You have these two people coming from two radically different places and actually finding a way to have a life together. So it’s an aspirational relationship in the play. The material is so much about our aspirations and how short we fall, and what do we do with that shortfall? Do we become cynical? Do we give up? Do we keep trying?”
The story is about a loss of innocence: His children learn about racism, Finch learns that justice in a country that boasts of justice does not come easily. More than 60 years after Lee told this American story — Jim Crow, lynch mobs, racism, injustice — some people just don’t want to hear it. They certainly don’t want it being taught in school.
“We still need this story,” says Williams. “We still have a lot of work to do. The last few years, especially, things are worse, all over the country, not just the South. That’s why we’re out here, taking this story around the country. Hopefully, people that come and see it will leave thinking about what they have done in their lives to make things better, and what they can do going forward.”
“I would add to that,” says Thomas, “that it’s just as important for people who see the play to think about what they’ve done that hasn’t made things better, to wonder in what ways they have transgressed against their fellow humans and contributed to the overall systemic problem. It’s very easy for a whole audience full of white people to watch the show and say, ‘See, there’s good white people out there, we can make it right,’ and feel good about ourselves through what Atticus tries to do. …”
People, progressives included, need to challenge themselves about matters of race, just as Calpurnia challenges Atticus in the play. This part of American history cannot be repressed, says Thomas.
“One of the most inspiring things I ever saw,” he says, “was the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. It was right there in the middle of the city, a memorial where the state can own its sin, and can look at it, accept it, work through it, not deny it. And it’s right there for all to see, and it’s healing to be able to do that. It’s actually healing. . . . Every country has its story.”
“‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’” says Williams, “is part of our American story. …”
“Whether you teach it or not,” says Thomas.