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Aaron Sorkin, Jeff Daniels – and Multiple Lawsuits: One Attorney’s Atypical Introduction to Atticus Finch

02.19.19

BY: JULIET MAZER-SCHMIDT

In lieu of a curtain, a red brick wall with a door. Downstairs, a merch booth featuring TRAYVON hoodies and “Patriarchy is a Bitch” t-shirts. “My world is about to be rocked, isn’t it,” my final pre-show text before powering off my cell phone for Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. ALL RISE:

Apparel by Liberated People, a social justice lifestyle brand founded and managed by actor Gbenga Akinnagbe (Tom Robinson) / Photo by Juliet Mazer-Schmidt.

Apparel by Liberated People, a social justice lifestyle brand founded and managed by actor Gbenga Akinnagbe (Tom Robinson) / Photo by Juliet Mazer-Schmidt.

Please pardon this broken protocol of first-person prose on Broadway Spin, but studying Sorkin’s take on Harper Lee’s celebrated novel led constantly back to a theme: Mockingbird is source material people take personally. Excited chatter among audience members packed into an oversold house swirls with Mockingbird-related memories. EVERYONE knows Atticus Finch, it seems –

—Everyone except me.

Stepping into Sorkin’s Mockingbird, I knew three facts for certain re Atticus Finch – coincidentally, all things he wouldn’t do: take the Lord’s name in vain; drink alcohol; keep a rifle in his closet. And I only knew these facts on account of a lawsuit that threatened Sorkin’s adaptation mere months before its eagerly anticipated Broadway run on a flagship Shubert stage.

Though I miraculously missed Mockingbird in school and on-screen, I did read all available court documents pertaining to the lawsuit between Harper Lee’s estate and Rudinplay, Inc., company of Mockingbird’s mega-producer Scott Rudin. (Rudin and Sorkin joined forces previously on The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs, as well as HBO series The Newsroom – led also by Jeff Daniels.)

A Super-Succinct Summary:

6/29/15: Lee and Rudin enter into a contract for stage rights, containing language that “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.”

2/19/16: Lee dies; the contract transfers to Lee’s estate, overseen by attorney Tonja Carter.

3/13/18: After reading a draft of Sorkin’s script, Carter believes the agreement was violated (character alteration of Atticus, Scout, Jem, Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, plus departure from the novel’s “spirit” as it pertains to the legal proceedings against Tom Robinson and “a small Alabama town in the 1930s”). Carter files a lawsuit against Rudin exactly 9 months before Mockingbird’s scheduled opening night.

4/16/18: Rudin returns fire with a countersuit, at one point offering to debut the full play in the courtroom as evidence.

5/10/18: The case settles, including Sorkin’s trio of concessions (re rifles, swearing, and a post-trial shot of whiskey).

11/1/18: Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird debuts at the Shubert – not a federal courthouse.

Aaron Sorkin, beneath the reflection of Mockingbird’s marquee, moments before first preview / Photo by Benjamin Lowy.

“What Kind of Day Has It Been”:

Sorkin’s four-time television finale title (used most recently to conclude Newsroom) now suits the writer’s own dramatic quest to land his Mockingbird on a Broadway stage. Never one to fall on his sword when that sword is his script, Sorkin remained adamant throughout the litigation: “the play can’t be written by a team of lawyers.” (This lawyer agrees vehemently.)

Sacred text to many, Lee’s novel retains firm footing in American culture nearly six decades after its 1960 publication. A 2018 PBS poll ranked To Kill a Mockingbird America’s #1 best-loved novel – and Sorkin’s not even the only writer adding to the narrative in 2018. Just two days before the Mockingbird lawsuit settled, political historian Joseph Crespino’s Atticus Finch: The Biography hit bookshelves; the next month, Broadway theatre manager Tom Santorpietro’s Why ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Matters followed.

But reverence for Mockingbird is by no means universal: in the wake of Santorpietro’s release, The New York Times published an essay by Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay under the headline, Lots of People Love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Roxane Gay Isn’t One of Them. Gay is quick to remind readers that the black characters in Lee’s novel “are narrative devices, not fully realized human beings.”

Newspaper headlines and Supreme Court cases from the time of Lee’s writing show Mockingbird to be quite bold for its era – but, for producers like Scott Rudin (also a longtime supporter of the South Park empire), “bold” by 1960-standards has no business on a Broadway stage in 2018. President Trump’s “good people on both sides” remark post-Charlottesville inspired Sorkin – who happened to be mid-Mockingbird script rewrites at the time – to stretch the novel’s spirit in order to confront continued racism in America.

The Mockingbird lawsuit’s concern that the Finch family remain a fixed, if fictional cornerstone of cultural coming-of-age perhaps highlights the need for Sorkin’s: with so much work left to do, Lee’s novel ought to serve as a starting point, not a finish line. In Sorkin’s script, a new scene allows audiences to witness the first conversation between Attius Finch and his new client, Tom Robinson; Sorkin freely admits discussing Calpurnia’s expanded dialogue with LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who brings a more outspoken Cal to a Broadway stage. Jeff Daniels plays the Atticus Finch America needs right now – and there is no voice Atticus needs in his ear more than Calpurnia’s.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Calpurnia) and Jeff Daniels (Atticus) / Photo by Sara Krulwich.

Led by Lincoln Center Theater Resident Director Bartlett Sher (whose revival of My Fair Lady plays presently at LCT – complete with an updated ending for Eliza Doolittle), Sorkin’s Mockingbird amplifies marginalized voices, questions the efficacy of full-blown empathy, and elevates the agency of children. In doing so, Mockingbird becomes one more example of The Great White Way using the season as a vehicle for activism (see also The Prom – and come March 14, Heidi Schreck’s award-winning What The Constitution Means To Me plays a 12-week-only Broadway run just across the street from the Shubert at the Hayes Theater).

Sorkin and Sher’s creative decision to use adult actors as Scout, Jem and Dill further marks this Mockingbird as something revolutionary – and the use of lifelong actor/activist Celia Keenan-Bolger as lead narrator Scout further blurs the line between stage and street.

The “spirit” of Scout: Keenan-Bolger, with her son and husband (fellow actor/activist John Ellison Conlee) at the 2017 Women’s March in NYC / Photo from Celia Keenan-Bolger via Twitter.

Taking it Personally:

I now realize my childhood “Atticus Finch” came in the form of my grandfather, a beloved Detroit-area criminal defense attorney, in whose house my big brother and I spent our summers. Grandpa Mazer’s in-home law office took on its fair share of controversial clients, who sometimes paid for his legal service with fresh bread or honey-baked ham – once, a taxidermal deer head. The hero-worship I felt for him matched Scout’s for Atticus, mine preserved on the index cards of a eulogy I performed for him at age 10, and later reflected through my own career as a criminal litigator. (Keenan-Bolger’s Scout mentions later attending law school – which I’ve come to learn is not part of Lee’s novel.)

The equally-strong hero-worship I felt toward my Grandma Mazer, an even-more-beloved music director of a community children’s theater (who, coincidentally, underscored all three Keenan-Bolger kids back in the 1980s), led me to view the theatre as a courtroom of sorts, each audience member a juror empowered to draw conclusions based on the story laid out before them.

Harper Lee made clear that Mockingbird characters came from her own home and neighborhood. At a time when the south remained openly segregated – despite Supreme Court rulings instructing otherwise – Lee confronted America with something uncomfortable in service of something greater: from the beginning, Mockingbird’s spirit begged to surpass its story. Circling back to the Mockingbird lawsuit, Sorkin’s stance strikes this attorney as the same: his new play preserves precisely the spirit of Lee’s novel.

Third grade protesters in Washington, DC (2018) / Photo via WearOutTheSilence.org

If your Broadway Roulette spin lands you a coveted seat at the Shubert, a recommendation – and a challenge: leave Mockingbird nostalgia at the red brick wall and take in this production as something new. Channel your inner-child alongside Keenan-Bolger, rethink decency, and RISE.

Juliet Mazer-Schmidt is a Detroit-born performer, turned DC-based litigator, turned Chicago-based theatre developer – turned NYC-based all-of-the-above… and in case it’s not obvious, she is also a writer.