The Failures of Unfailing Optimism: The Broadway Debut of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

“I was guilty as soon as I was accused,” says Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch.

“I get called an optimist a lot. What I don’t get called is stupid,” Atticus responds, trying to convince Tom to sign the “not guilty” plea that sits before him on a wooden table. He assures Tom that the trial “will happen in an American court of law.” Tom “should have faith in that institution.”

It’s early in the first act of Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Tom is squaring off against Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Akinnagbe, masterfully bottling up Tom’s bottomless anger and sadness, offers a sort of half-laugh at the privilege inherent in blindly trusting an American court in 1934 (or any other year).

“I know these people,” Daniels continues. “Do we have ignorant citizens who are stuck in the old ways? Yes. Does that extend as far as sending an obviously innocent man to his death?”

A long pause ensues before Tom responds, “You gonna answer that question?” The audience laughs knowingly.

By the end of the conversation, of course, Tom Robinson agrees to plead “not guilty” to the rape he did not commit. “And just like that,” says Scout, in her role as narrator, “everyone’s fate was sealed.”

This interaction, which does not exist in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, nor the 1962 film version, is the first of several invented scenes intended to flesh out the perspectives of the story’s previously one-dimensional African-American characters. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.

To Kill a Mockingbird opened on December 13 at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre under the direction of Bartlett Sher. The play has had an unusually public path to Broadway, garnering national headlines in a dispute between mega-producer Scott Rudin and Tonja Carter, the lawyer who now controls Harper Lee’s estate. As Sorkin recently revealed in an essay for Vulture, one of the concessions of the settlement between the parties was that his version of Atticus could not use the Lord’s name in vain.

In that essay, Sorkin revealed his desire to put Atticus at the heart of his adaptation (in the book, Atticus’s daughter Scout is the protagonist). Of course, any tragic hero needs a hamartia, but Sorkin realized he “didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because,” well, “he already had one.” Atticus “believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”

Enter Jeff Daniels, who tackles the inevitable comparisons to Gregory Peck by playing a different character entirely. Peck’s Atticus is statuesque, his anger measured, his words slow and mellifluous, his voice a carefully-plucked bass. Daniels’s Atticus is slightly stoop-shouldered, increasingly short-tempered, and more urgent. He delivers his lines in a cascading baritone, slurring together syllables in a sing-song Southern lilt. It’s an indelible portrait, so much so that to go back and watch Peck after watching Daniels is jarring.

Daniels is joined by a trio of adult actors—Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and Gideon Glick—as Scout, Jem, and Dill. This casting maneuver elides one of Mockingbird’s perceived narrative flaws: the inconsistency of Scout’s voice. It is so well-executed that not a single moment goes by in which it feels like the wrong move. Each time Keenan-Bolger joyfully stomps around with her brand-new baton, or angrily stomps back and forth in front of the house, slamming her hand against the porch over and over, she wins our love all over again. Pullen deftly channels the uncertain gulf between boyhood and manhood. Glick brings to mind Nathan Lane with his absurdly high laugh rate. (I lost track, but it seemed well over 50 percent, and every word he spoke felt fresh.)

LaTanya Richardson Jackson draws mid-scene applause as Calpurnia with her withering critiques of Atticus’s liberalism. (I would happily watch a sequel all about her.) It is through Calpurnia’s eyes, and Tom’s, that the overwhelmingly white audience sees Atticus’s perfect whiteness: He has the luxury of wrongly believing in people, whereas she and Tom are required by circumstance to rightly understand systems.

The empty stage is constantly being reinvented via Miriam Buether’s set design. It’s a courthouse, it’s a front porch, it’s the yard of Boo Radley. This is all done with workmanlike precision and grace, as a combination of automated and actor-controlled set pieces rise and fall and roll and lock into place.

Each time Akinnagbe’s Tom Robinson enters or exits, he, too, is pushed or pulled by a cast member. Akinnagbe’s physical resistance increases as the play progresses, but even in his quietest moments, he loathes the controlling hands. Tom’s body, it is clear, does not belong to him.

When the inevitable verdict is reached—and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next one if you have not read the book, or if you don’t remember—we hear it repeated 12 times, one “guilty” for each juror. It brings to mind the verdict in the Laquan McDonald case, in which each count was read aloud, one “guilty” for each of the sixteen shots from the gun of Officer Jason Van Dyke.

That verdict took a full two minutes to read. And while it was a more hopeful verdict than the one that meets Tom Robinson, the gap between the two Black men, one real and one fictional, is a small one. Late in the play, Calpurnia insists that Atticus share how many times Tom is ultimately shot during his attempted prison escape. (Puzzlingly, the answer is five, while in the book, it is seventeen.)

This is a production that is well aware of how far our society has not come since 1934, or since 1960. In the theatre’s basement, Mockingbird merchandise is on sale alongside a T-Shirt that reads “Patriarchy is a Bitch,” a woman’s tank top with the words “consent is sexy,” and a gray hoodie emblazoned with the name “TRAYVON.” The offerings are the result of a partnership with Liberated People, a brand founded by Akinnagbe. According to a sign on the gift kiosk counter, some portion of the proceeds benefit the Monroe County Public Library, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trayvon Martin Foundation.

The Atticus Finch onstage at the Shubert Theatre is many people. He is the two-time Obama voter who eventually goes for Trump, as we know he did in Go Set a Watchman. He is the white Obama-Clinton voter who never saw a Trump victory coming, right up until all those swing states went red, one by one. And he is Obama himself, who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, is “unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people.”

Obama looms large over this play, not least because he lovingly quoted Atticus in his January 2017 farewell address to the nation. In a segment focusing on race relations, Obama enumerated policy recommendations, but also noted that “Laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. They won’t change overnight. Social attitudes often times take generations to change.” (In the play, Calpurnia mocks Atticus’s patience with the glacial pace of change in Maycomb, asking, “How much time would Maycomb like?”)

“But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation,” Obama went on, “then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This advice comes early on in the play, after an ugly front-porch confrontation between Atticus and Bob Ewell. Scout and Jem are itching for a fight, and Atticus sits them down and reviews the plan for what to do when people say “unpleasant” things to them. “Go for the eyes,” Scout responds, without missing a beat.

Not quite. “There’s goodness in everyone,” Atticus says. “Before you judge someone, it’s a good idea to get inside their skin for a while and crawl around.”

It’s a notable rewrite on Sorkin’s part, substituting the nobler-sounding “climb” and “walk” for the more modest “get” and “crawl.” And it is this advice, as much as Tom Robinson himself, that is on trial throughout the play. It is brought up three more times in the first act, once by Scout and twice by Calpurnia, and all three times the women are spitting Atticus’s advice back at him defiantly.

Whether to “go for the eyes” or don your opponent’s skin is a tension deeply felt in Obama’s inner circle today. This October, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who once called To Kill a Mockingbird “America’s story” and credited Atticus with launching countless law careers, was on a campaign stop for Stacey Abrams in Georgia. He referenced the former first lady’s Atticus-like words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’

“No, no,” he corrected. “When they go low, we kick ‘em.” Amid the laughter and applause, some members of the crowd chanted, “fight, fight, fight!”

Atticus, who is on the Obamas’ side, ends the play diminished. Deaths and injuries have piled up around him. Each one is in some way the result of his optimism, and each one flies in the face of his faith in his friends and neighbors. Calpurnia and Tom, meanwhile, are on Holder’s. And not a single moment goes by when their clear-eyed vision of the world is proven wrong.