Review: To Kill a Mockingbird, a Play for the Trump Era

As Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” In Aaron Sorkin’s play adaptation of the novel, he seems to send the audience a similar message by asking, should you try to understand the racists and bigots?

Throughout the Trump administration, there has been a consistent rise of hateful 'isms' in the country. Looking at 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia when a protestor was murdered by neo-nazis, President Trump seemed to take Atticus’ point of view. He stated that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” 

Sorkin’s play, currently playing the Schubert Theater in New York City, argues that this the time for respecting “fine people” who happen to be prejudiced should be gone. His main advocate for this viewpoint in the play comes from an unlikely voice, not Atticus, but rather Calpurnia his African-American maid. 

At the core of the story, the rape trial is central and centers against the innocent Tom Robinson, a black man who accused of raping a white teenager in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. In the past versions of the story, Finch played by Jeff Daniels is often portrayed as a “white night” because he takes on the hard case. Atticus does believe Tom is innocent, but his views of tolerance towards members of the KKK in his community are shown in a less than flattering light.  

Here is where Calpurnia, played by the brilliant LaTonya Richardson Jackson, comes in. Her character is transformed in the play from the former mother figure of the family to an equal to Atticus and morally conscious. This change in the character of Calpurnia single-handedly brings the story’s relevance to the America of today. 

Her pushback against Finch comes after the news that Tom Robinson has been killed in prison while trying to escape after his verdict of guilty had been read. Atticus is grief-stricken over the injustice but still maintains the sentiment that he must still respect those that sent Tom to his death. 

Calpurnia finally speaks. She says that the all-white jury who sent Tom to his death began as monsters, but when they “walked out of the courtroom they were murderers.” This jarring and honest moment takes the noble southern lawyer and the audience by surprise as we realize that his push for tolerance enabled the racist jury to commit a crime. 

As Jeff Daniels noted in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, “The play is like a right hook to the chin of white Americans.” More specifically, Calpurnia’s truth is the sucker-punch. 

For white-liberals in Trump’s America today, this realization that trying to tolerate hate instead enables it is a rather troubling notion. Even though we may not hate, we must have a stake in stopping those who do. If you are neutral in times of injustice, you are taking the side of the oppressor.

But we are given the tools to change the outcome with two words: all-rise. The play begins with these poignant words which serve as a rallying call suggesting that we must not tolerate, but rather fight, injustice and rise to the occasion. 

(Photos: cover, 1, and 2 owned by Anastasia Maragos)