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‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Brilliantly Stuns on North American Tour

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I remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee back in tenth-grade English class, as I’m sure many people my age did. The story of a small town and the racism that resided there through the eyes of the young Scout is breathtaking and harrowing, standing as an important piece of modern literature. It speaks on topics such as rape and racial discrimination and inequality, using the 1930s South to draw parallels to issues we’re still struggling with in our current society. The text speaks volumes and is easily accessible, making it the perfect novel to adapt for the stage.

Adapting Lee’s novel is the esteemed Aaron Sorkin, attached to many well-known screenplays and series. Famously known for The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Social Network (for which he won an Academy Award), Sorkin has been the brains behind some of the most influential and thought-provoking series and films of the most recent decade.

His résumé is extensive and speaks for itself, with a distinct voice that seems perfect for To Kill A Mockingbird. Richard Thomas stars as the unwavering moral Atticus Finch, in what may be a career-defining performance. Maeve Moynihan, Jacqueline Williams, Yaegel T. Welch, Christopher R Ellis, Justin Mark, Steven Lee Johnson, and Mary Badham join him on stage.

Should To Kill a Mockingbird be on your radar when it stops in a city near you? Read on for more information about this all-important show and why it’s essential viewing for all theater-goers.

[Warning: spoilers from To Kill A Mockingbird are below!]

A court case sets the stage for racial inequality in To Kill A Mockingbird

Growing up is never easy, however growing up in the South during the 1930s feels extra challenging. Living in rural America, Scout (Maeve Moynihan) sees injustices happening around every corner, which is something her father Atticus (Richard Thomas) has instilled in her and her brother Jem (Justin Mark) to be aware of. This awareness isn’t as apparent in others within their small town that has the same porcelain skin as the Finch’s, which comes front and center in a court case that draws a line in the sand for everyone involved.

Tom Robinson (Yaegel T. Welch) faces charges of rape and assault, a crime that he denies with every bone in his body. Recognizing an innocent man, Judge Taylor (Jeff Still), who thinks similarly to the Finch family, knows he has to do something to save a life. So he calls upon Atticus to come to Robinson’s defense. Atticus is a lawyer, whose expertise lies outside criminal defense, but feels a moral responsibility to help out the defenseless Robinson. 

Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas). To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch (Richard Thomas). To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway in Detroit).

This court case is an uphill battle because Robinson is a black man being accused of hurting a young white woman. A girl whose father is not only abusive but a member of the KKK. Can Atticus save an innocent life and change the minds of those who grew up with normalized racism? And how exactly does living through a situation like this impact the young minds of Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson)? All of those answers and so much more are there for you to view as To Kill A Mockingbird plays out on stage.

The positives and negatives of this Broadway in Detroit show

Of all the options that Broadway in Detroit offered this season, To Kill A Mockingbird was my wild card. For starters, it’s the only one of the bunch that isn’t a musical, which makes it stand out among the rest, although that could be either a negative or a positive. For the average theater attendee, it seems that musicals are more acceptable to the palette, whereas plays feel like a forgotten art form. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had seen a show that didn’t include musical numbers every couple of minutes. It might have been back in high school when the drama club put on its winter or spring offerings. 

It makes sense why To Kill A Mockingbird would be a standard play instead of a musical, as the topics on hand need to be handled with a delicate touch. Not that a musical can’t handle sensitive topics, as we’ve had many over the years that have done so. But there’s something about the structure of this particular story that seems to work better with a play instead of a musical.

Part of this might be due to the distinct voice of Aaron Sorkin that can shine through in the words and dialogue that comes to life on stage. It’s the same style that I’ve come to know with The West Wing, with banter and jokes that strike hard and quickly, before being swept into the next scene.

There’s something special to how Sorkin develops characters and relationships, which only certain writers can do. I wonder if the process was easier or more difficult when the original novel provided a strong framework in which Sorkin was allowed to play. I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in years, so it’s hard to say how close the play remained to it, except for the major beats which indeed follow along to the original material.

With the strong groundwork laid by Lee and Sorkin, the actors on stage encapsulate perfectly the characters and the world of To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout, Jem, and Dill serve as the narrators of the story, using their inherent childlike wonder to view the world innocently. All three of the actors do a fantastic job providing this perspective, however, they and everyone else are shadowed by the incredible performance of Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch. 

Scout (Maeve Moynihan) and Atticus (Richard Thomas). To Kill a Mockingbird
Scout (Maeve Moynihan) and Atticus (Richard Thomas). To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway in Detroit).

Atticus always serves as the hero of the story, which makes sense when his children are telling it. He’s a kind and just man, who truly wants to make changes in the world. However, he’s also flawed, which is seen in his relationship with Calpurnia (Jacqueline Williams), the housekeeper. He does his best to judge people on their merit, but can’t outrun some prejudices that are generationally ingrained in him. That being said, he does his best to overcome these. Richard Thomas excels at showing the duality that exists in this character, showcasing the strengths and flaws of the man who wants to see equality in the world. 

The scenes between Thomas and Williams are some of the best of the entire show. Calpurnia is a sister to Atticus, keeping him in check by reminding him of the inequality that is naturally present in the way Blacks and Whites are treated. I think this relationship specifically pushes him to be better. If he didn’t have a Calpurnia, I wonder how much Atticus would have fought for Robinson. 

Speaking of Yaegel T. Welch’s Robinson, he’s great as a man who’s facing death for a crime he didn’t commit. There’s one scene in particular where Welch’s performance gave me goosebumps, and you can tell that everyone else in the audience felt it too. The case against Robinson also serves as a reminder of the injustice that still resides in our society, which is a reminder that many people can use.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a heavy show, and rightfully so. It’s a story that needs to be told, but covers topics that might be triggering for some. Sexual assault and racial inequalities are difficult pills to swallow and might be difficult for some people to handle.

Final thoughts on Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird

Overall, this show is one of the strongest ones yet to arrive in Detroit. It’s poignant and harrowing, but exactly the show that everyone should see to understand more about America’s past and its future. We have a long way to go to right the wrongs of our past, but the first way to do so is to examine a story that reflects that perfectly.

To Kill a Mockingbird is well written, with acting that is even better. Aaron Sorkin honors the original novel, creating a new look at a classic tale.

To Kill A Mockingbird is currently in Detroit, and continues touring across America. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus if you plan on seeing this play!

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 35 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson