I was in NYC recently and had the wonderful and rare opportunity to see Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of To Kill A Mockinbird starring Jeff Daniels and directed by Barlett Sher. No doubt you’ve probably read or heard about this behemoth of a play in some media outlet by now. It has broken many records to the point that it has become something of a repetitive news item and somewhat annoying to every other play that anyone else ever wrote. And yet, it still keeps moving like a juggernaut, collecting with it pedantic, bloviated explanations of its meaning and relevance for our time. I will now add to that roster in the most unapologetic way that I possibly can. Permit me to just say this – that I truly loved it and felt its intent, as a writer, and most importantly as a human being in the 21st century.
When Harper Lee’s TKAM first came into publication, the world had just barely seen a significant spark of the civil rights movement – and, depending on which area you were born in, generations remembered either the cruelty and injustice of that era, still fresh and indelible in their memories, or the struggle to keep the south proud and strong despite its blatantly racist and redneck tendencies. Here we encounter America’s cognitive dissonance; or as the captain of the chain gang so profoundly says in the Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”. There is no doubt that two kinds of people watch this play; those who love it for its Sorkin-esque righteousness or those who feel slammed in the face with 400 years of American slavery unnecessarily. As a result, the play positions itself at the fulcrum of American opinion in 2019. However, I think it might be fair to say that, geographically and politically, with sold out audiences every night, this play is a Yankee Doodle Dandy conquest in the hands of the northerners.
For those who watched The Newsroom and semi-orgasmed at Jeff Daniels’ “America isn’t the greatest country anymore” monologue, TKAM is the bonus features on a long awaited DVD version of that show and more. Sorkin knows where we hurt and he is masterful at poking us in our recent wounds. TKAM is no exception. If you, like me and have loved the old movie version of TKAM with Gregory Peck, you might feel like you know this story already or you can move beyond it. It might be almost a century off in terms of setting, but the idea that we still live among the prejudiced, ignorant and hateful is very relevant today. If you have been in the audience of one of these remarkable performances, you will feel it right to your core – arguably something only done in in live theatre: ugly racism and hatred in bright colours and on display. It’s difficult to take in while still observing the customs and traditions of the theatre. I know for myself, I was at times quite stunned – breathless in fact. Having read the book and seen the Gregory Peck film, I thought I was prepared to encounter such raw hatred in person, but I was wrong and I am so glad that I witnessed this phenomenon in person, in a noticeably inescapable way. There were some other things that caught my attention, such as Sorkin’s nerdy love of classical theatre and rebranding the trio of children as a traditional Greek chorus to into/outro scenes. It was quite brilliant, (I apologize for gushing) but in the presence of such mastery and blatant homage, one must just salute the higher power and move on.
When you get your TKTS in NYC and you’re all excited to go see a show, usually your evening ends with a “wow that was great” or “amazing, would definitely go again”. In this case you’re left with a foreboding “holy shit……” and a sense that you have just been abducted by lefty aliens and probed by your liberal conscience. I have a weird relationship with Sorkin’s material because, despite that it feeds my need for leftist philosophical endorsement and satisfies my love of classical literature and passion for story, it stimulates a tepid amount of guilt that I feel for being receptive to the opposing side; occasionally also human beings. Atticus [aka Aaron Sorkin in purple note] takes us deep into human empathy and belief that our better angels will prevail. I’m not entirely sure I agree with him yet – maybe it’s an age thing – but like all other Sorkin projects, I know he made me feel it and that’s something I can’t ignore.