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Aaron Sorkin, an Oscar-winning director and creator of the hit TV show “The West Wing,” now has a new adaptation of the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway. The reworked version of Harper Lee’s book has been nominated for nine Tony awards. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Sorkin and Jeff Daniels, who plays Atticus Finch, to discuss how this telling of the timeless story is different.
Finally, something old is new again and still relevant to these times.
It has been more than half-a-century since Harper Lee penned "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Our well-traveled and multitasking correspondent Jeffrey Brown is back again to tell us more about the reworked "To Kill a Mockingbird" staged on Broadway and up for a handful of Tony Awards next month.
It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
The defendant isn't guilty, but someone in this building is.
It's a new take on one of the most-beloved and well-known stories in American literature, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in Aaron Sorkin's Broadway adaptation of the Harper Lee classic.
Sorkin is creator of the hit TV show "The West Wing."
Those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.
And writer of films including "A Few Good Men" and "The Social Network," which won him an Oscar.
When we met recently at the famed Sardi's Restaurant, he said he'd had two distinct reactions when the opportunity came to bring "Mockingbird" to Broadway.
My heart sank, because I thought, this is a suicide mission. I'm never going to get out of this alive.
And I was thrilled because of the opportunity to be doing a play, to be back in the theater. My first draft of the play reflected the heart-sinking part. I simply was trying to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage.
And the result was that first draft was tepid.
It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.
The play he finally did write, starring Jeff Daniels, still focuses on Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer in Maycomb, Alabama, tasked with defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman.
The story, set in the 1930s is still told from the point of view of Finch's young daughter, Scout, who learns important lessons about race, class and morality.
The book was first published in 1960. Two years later, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.
Jeff Daniels called Sorkin's version a rethink. After getting the part, he read the book and rewatched the film.
I wanted to see how he — you know, he chose to do that that way, that way, that way. And you go, OK, thank you. Clocked it. Again, different medium, different script.
And different time.
Different time. That's — because one of the big questions is doing "To Kill a Mockingbird" today.
I think Harper Lee went as far as she could. Peck was — it was written as the great white hero, savior, and that's what he played. That was the book. That was the movie.
How much change is allowed? That became a question last year, when Lee's estate sued, saying Sorkin's script unacceptably altered characters.
The suit was ultimately settled, and the show went on. Sorkin argued "Mockingbird" today should reflect an increased awareness of racism then and now. That meant a more meaningful role for the African-American characters.
The defendant, Tom Robinson, and Finch's maid, Calpurnia, who's played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.
Which means I don't want them hating people they disagree with.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson:
You got to give Maycomb time, Cal. This is the Deep South. You got to give Maycomb time. Well, how much time would Maycomb like?
I didn't want her to be the magical Negro. Neither did I want her to just be scenery.
My coming to it was filled with what I would always hope that I knew about these women, that I knew about people who were in service. And if that was going to happen, then I was in. But if that wasn't what was happening…
… the truth of who they really were, of their strength, of how philosophically they filled the void of living for most people then, then I wasn't in.
He knew that a Negro man can't feel sorry for a white woman.
Sorkin decided the lead role of Atticus Finch had to shift too, with more of an arc from the play's beginning to its end.
Is he a bad lawyer who becomes a good lawyer, a bad father who becomes a good father, a racist who becomes someone who believes in justice and equality? Of course not. It's any of those.
I saw that I didn't have to give Atticus a flaw, that reading the book today, instead of back when I read it, he already had a couple. It's just that we were taught that they were virtues.
Atticus says you can find goodness in anyone. It's your job to get around inside their skin.
That assertion, Sorkin said, had an echo in President Trump's remarks after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Violence erupted, leaving one woman dead.
The president famously said there were — quote — "very fine people on both sides."
I thought, wait, Atticus is suddenly — I have some questions for Atticus. This was no longer an exercise in nostalgia. This wasn't a field trip to a museum. It wasn't an homage to one of America's favorite books. It was something new.
So let's hasten the change. Let's hasten the end of the beginning. Let's do it right now in Maycomb. Let's begin by restoring this man to his family. Let's begin with justice.
It isn't enough for Atticus to lose the case and go back to his porch, get a bourbon or a tea and then solve the Boo Radley mystery and go to bed.
You have got — what are you going to do? You're the hero. What are you going to do? What are you going to do about it? And he tries to stand for his beliefs. And then he finds out that maybe we can't wait for people to find the goodness in themselves.
For Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout, the play is still squarely Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," but she said Sorkin tugged at the themes most in need of examination today.
I think it feels very fresh. While, you know, Harper Lee wrote it in 1960 about the '30s. And here we are doing it in 2019, looking back on 1960, looking back on 1930.
I mean, I think we — it's old and new all at once, and that that's part of what makes it — it's an enduring piece of literature, but it's also something that can withstand a production like this, which dares, I think, to draw out the relevancy of the themes that Harper Lee put down for — in the first place.
Celia Keenan-Bolger received one of "To Kill a Mockingbird"'s nine Tony Award nominations.
A man will have his dignity.
Also included, Jeff Daniels for best actor in a leading role.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.
Old and new all at once.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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